BY JONATHAN VALANIA FOR THE INQUIRER A long, long time ago a guy named Paul wrote his pen pals the Corinthians asking: “Oh death, where is thy sting?” The answer, my friend, is blowing in the winding stanzas of a late-period Loudon Wainwright III song. For more than 40 years, Wainwright has earned his keep as a dark-but-folksy ironist, as funny as Mark Twain on a good day, troubadouring across the fruited plain, looking for and invariably finding the punch lines in the dashed hopes, thwarted dreams and doomed romance of this American life.
Which is, admittedly, strikingly ironic for a guy whose biggest hit was a novelty song about a dead skunk on the road. Sunday night, Wainright delivered an outstanding hour-plus set to a capacity crowd at the World Cafe, proving if nothing else that he’s still sardonic cleverness incarnate after all these years. Still, he is the first to admit that a lot of water has passed under his bridge. Where he once plumbed the depths of love souring like milk for inspiration, he now draws on the intimations of his own mortality as he enters the autumn of his years. But even this is played for laughs, as if to say just because the end is near doesn’t mean we can’t have fun.
Smiling like a cheshire cat and swearing like a sailor, dressed in shirtsleeves and bluejeans, armed with only his trusty Martin guitar, a rapier-like wit and back catalog of songs that could draw laughter out of stones, Wainwright glibly announced that the evening’s theme would be “death and decay.” He then launched into the apropos “Double Lifetime,” which pointedly notes that at 64 he has lived a year longer than his ever father did — that 63 is too young to die and 64 is too old to live — and he recently buried his ex-wife, Kate McGarrigle, the dearly departed grande dame of folk.
He then warned the crowd that he would be sitting down at some point in the set because it was only 10 days ago that he went under the knife for a hernia operation — and his “incision still hurts” — before tucking into a side-splittingly funny new number called “My Meds” that catalogs the vast prescription pharmacopia that has become the daily bread of incipient old age.
From there he essayed “House” from last year’s 10 Songs For The New Depression, which is about a couple whose marriage foreclosed a long time ago but they stay together because they can’t sell their underwater house. He strapped on the banjo and plucked out the title track from High Wide And Handsome, his Grammy-winning tribute to Charlie Poole, a boozy, proto-country hellraiser from the 1920s.
Honoring requests from the audience, he pulled “Gray In L.A.” and “White Wino” out of thin air, and they may well have been the highlights of a set that had no lowlights. He then debuted a pair of new songs, a how-dry-I-am talking blues called “Harlan County” and “Unfriendly Skies” which makes the case that hell is not in fact other people, as Sartre would have it, but it is instead dealing with that rhymes-with-hitch behind the check-in counter at the airport.
*A truncated version of this review appears in today’s Inquirer