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Martha Wainwright explores desire and motherhood at the High Noon Saloon
Free, brash and lustful, Wainwright howls out her longing in a powerful voice edged with smoke and rasp.
Free, brash and lustful, Wainwright howls out her longing in a powerful voice edged with smoke and rasp.
Credit:Laura Jones

Martha Wainwright prefers Irish whiskey to bourbon. She made that much clear during her show at the High Noon Saloon last night. These days, she's sipping it because she's on tour with her 3-year-old son, and the kid keeps getting her sick.

Wainwright's reason for tippling shows how much personal life and music have evolved since 2005, the year she released her self-titled debut. The album features in-your-face lyrics about female sexuality and need. Free, brash and decidedly lustful, Wainwright howls out her desire in her powerful voice, edged with smoke and rasp. A few of these early songs found their way into last night's show. In "Ball and Chain," an ode to male genitalia, Wainwright begs her lover to "bend her over the back seat" and "take her down to easy street." It's a harlot's vision, sung in a wail.

But as Wainwright mentioned in the show, when you're young, you write a different kind of song. The centerpiece of the tour is her new album, Come Home to Mama. The title is a calculated wink, a nod to past pleasures, embossed with a layer of motherhood. Sexuality is still a focus, but an older, wiser Wainwright tells a more tempered story. Her first song from the new album -- "Can You Believe It?" -- begins "I really like makeup sex/It's the only kind I ever get." She introduces a new kind of yearning, the want of a thousand housewives crying for a touch.

It's impossible to write about Wainwright without mentioning her famous family: folksinger parents Loudon Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle, and singer-songwriter brother, Rufus. Wainwright invoked them throughout the show, so much that at times, they seemed right up there with her as she performed. Most evident of all was her mother, who passed away in 2010 after a battle with cancer. Wainwright closed her set by covering McGarrigle's last song, "Proserpina," a retelling of the myth of Persephone and a comment on sex, death and rebirth. In this ancient story, a mother loses her beloved daughter, who has eaten the "seed" of her captor. The posthumous collaboration ached with meaning and was one of the most poignant and beautiful performances of the night.

Wainwright has become a mother, and she's lost a mother. The pleasure of the show was watching her work all that out. Through it all, her wit sparkled. She was never maudlin or dour, and her voice sounded as lush and rich on her own work as it did on traditional French folk songs and classics like "Stormy Weather," her encore. Watching such an artist in full command of her instrument at an important crossroads in her life -- and in a small, intimate space to boot-- it just doesn't get better than that. Wainwright called Madison a "little gem." But it was her set that shined.

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