With a 45-year career and 26 studio albums under his belt, Loudon Wainwright III has figured out the key to a great live performance – a pre-show nap.
“To quote myself, ‘No nap, I’m crap,'” Wainwright told HoboTrashcan backstage before his concert at the Creative Alliance in Baltimore this past Friday. “I got one in today.”
Wainwright has developed a no-frill approach to touring.
“Basically, the job is getting yourself to wherever it is,” said Wainwright. “I travel a lot. I don’t have a tour manager. I’ve been able, so far anyway, to do everything myself. Today, I drove down from New York, but if it’s a flight, I fly and then rent a car. Then I get that nap in. Then I go to sound check. Then I do the show.”
Wainwright said he stopped at a Cracker Barrel on the way down to Baltimore and ate a catfish fillet. After sound check, he said that he usually spends his time thinking about what song he wants to play that night or “waiting for my pizza to arrive.”
He likes to improvise, adjusting his set list on the fly to play whatever he’s in the mood for that night.
“I’m a spur of the moment performer,” said Wainwright. “If it’s not fresh for me, it’s boring and the audience can sense that. That’s one of the reasons I don’t use a set list, which is again, not to say that I don’t tell some of the same jokes every night.”
On Friday, Wainwright opened the show by going, according to him, “local, then seasonal.” He started by playing “Baltimore Fire,” then “You Don’t Want To Know” (which opens with the lyrics “It was colder than a witches tit, colder than a Polar bear’s nose / Colder than the shoulder of my old flame, colder than hell ever knows”).
After those two opening songs, he made the bulk of his set about the Wainwright family. This included reciting columns his father, Loudon Wainwright, Jr., wrote for Life magazine (from memory, which is incredibly impressive when you realize he hadn’t planned this ahead of time) and pairing them with songs he’s written that somehow connect thematically. He also played the song “Rowena,” which was based on love letters his maternal grandfather wrote to his maternal grandmother. And he performed “Meet the Wainwrights,” the song he wrote for the tour of Alaska he recently went on with fellow musicians and family members Rufus Wainwright, Sloan Wainwright, Suzzy Roche and Lucy Wainwright Roche.
The night also included a handful of covers, including Tom Lehrer’s “Oedipus Rex” (paired brilliantly with “White Winos,” a song Wainwright wrote about his relationship with his mother), Frank Loesser’s “More I Cannot Wish You” and Boudleaux Bryant’s “Love Hurts” (made famous by the Everly Brothers and Nazareth). Wainwright also played a few requests, while brushing off others.
“Sometimes people might call out something, which might be a good idea. I’ve been known to fulfill requests or ignore them if I think it’s a bad idea,” said Wainwright.
After all of the time he’s spent on the road, Wainwright admitted that he doesn’t get to see much of the cities he performs in.
“I’d like to know more about Baltimore,” he said. “It’s the 75 to 90 minutes, the show is what the whole thing is. I just focus on that. Sometimes, if I have a day off I’ll walk around or go to a movie or maybe even a museum.”
Currently, Wainwright is just performing a few sporadic gigs before going on a proper tour in April. Later this month, he will also fly out to Utah to act in a new Steven Soderbergh project.
“I have a little part in that, he said. “I’ve been out there once and we go back again and do that. He’s a very interesting guy who nobody knows what it’s about, the show.”
Wainwright, who first appeared on television as Capt. Calvin Spalding in M*A*S*H, likes scoring the occasional acting job and says he is still often recognized for playing Hal Karp on the Judd Apatow comedy Undeclared, a part he was offered because Apatow is a huge fan of his music.
“I meet people that say, ‘I saw you on Undeclared or I saw you in Knocked Up.’ Being in Judd’s things is a very helpful thing. I love when he tweets me. I’m very grateful and happy always to work for Judd.”
While Wainwright likes acting, it’s clear that music is still his first love. After almost five decades of singing, writing music and taking pre-show naps, he still has a passion for performing.
“It’s a fun and interesting job,” Wainwright said. “People sitting out there in the dark, clapping. What’s not to like? Except when it goes badly of course. No, I love the job. The work is getting there as I said, the traveling and everything, but the job is always fun.”
Photos and article by Joel Murphy. You can find our more about Loudon Wainwright III, including future tour dates, here. Hear audio from Murphy’s interview with Wainwright on this week’s Hobo Radio.