Glastonbury Festival. 2007. The particularly muddy one. Standing knee deep in thick mud in the newly opened Park area was the first time I was treated to a mud-spattered performance by the great Martha Wainwright. Her eponymous debut album was the only record she had released up to that point, but the crowd of lesbians, emo gays and enraptured crusties was small but devoted; most people were waiting for Martha to finish and were treating her set as a warm-up act for brother Rufus who was playing on The Other Stage straight afterwards. She told us she wasn’t staying in some special VIP area but was camping with us; an ominous portent as the event she had been scheduled to speak at the next day she failed to show up for.
Flash forward five and a half years and a more accomplished, mature Martha Wainwright plays the beautiful venue of The Great Hall in Toronto. This one-time print works has the feel of an old school music hall and provides the perfect setting for Martha and her fans; an intimate, glowing space that allows us to huddle in close yet become almost overwhelmed at times by the power of her vocal. Her musical style much more developed since the folk-tinged, angry girl with a guitar of her debut, she has since branched out into richer, more experimental sounds, most notably with Sans fusils, ni souliers, à Paris, her album of Edith Piaf covers. Her latest, Come Home To Mama deals with the issues that come to many people as they grow up and grow older; getting married, becoming a Mother and losing her own (folk legend Kate McGarrigle) are all events that she explores here. Like Rufus’ All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu, both the Wainwright siblings use their considerable musical ability to deal with their Mother’s death, with Martha choosing to pay tribute to her with cover versions of I Am A Diamond and McGarrigle’s final songwriting effort Proserpina.
The live show is nothing less than stellar; support act Aroara, old friends of Martha, are suitably meaty, with a mighty mix of folk and electro with lyrics taken from Alice Notley’s poetry book ‘In The Pines’. Martha, after arriving slightly late and scurrying backstage with windswept hair and her possessions packed into a North Face bag, emerges onstage looking dazzling in pale skinny jeans and sequin blazer that I’m instantly jealous of. I’m not completely familiar with the new record yet, but Martha’s decision to mostly play her new songs is a gamble that pays off as her voice and her band do it a great justice. Old favourites are not ignored with You Cheated Me and, of course, Bloody Motherfucking Asshole making an appearance to a rapturous reception. What’s simply stunning, though, are Martha’s twin McGarrigle covers; both I Am A Diamond (from an unproduced musical her mother wrote about Cassie Chadwick, Canada’s most famous con artist) and Proserpina not only showcase Martha’s stunning vocal ability but also her depth of feeling and unbridled passion for the music. Truly moving, mesmerising and majestic.
Here’s the thing; I have chased the Wainwrights all over Europe and never have I heard Martha sound better. From the husky, confessional style of her earlier music she has developed into a transcendent artist with astounding range and depth; and she isn’t through yet.