Judy Garland’s 1961 double live album, Judy at Carnegie Hall, is one of the pinnacles of recorded music. A gold record spending nearly 18 months on the Billboard charts, winning four Grammys and also being part of the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry, it’s absolutely monolithic.
So, naturally, around the 45th anniversary of the original recording, singer Rufus Wainwright performed the album in its entirety, complete with orchestra and Carnegie Hall. Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall is a showcase for his love of the material, and a showcase for his voice. Much in the same way that Garland’s performance proved she wasn’t a washed-up, drugged-out mess, this proved that Wainwright had the ability to think really, really big, and tackle something iconic.
Wainwright’s recording differs from Garland’s in a few ways. Most notably, the vinyl release on Analog Spark is a triple LP, rather than the original double. This has to do with a few things: Wainwright’s versions of the songs are usually a little longer (although the opening overture is a solid minute and a half shorter), and breaking the sides up a little earlier allows the vinyl release of Wainwright’s reenactment to be mastered a little more strongly, letting this get a little louder, a little clearer.
When Judy hits that final “When you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you,” on her first number, it’s massive. It’s the sort of voice which reaches the rafters, and one can understand the reaction audiences had to these performances. Garland’s voice is rich and full, but features just enough age to it that its body has some texture.
Wainwright’s voice is absolutely, resolutely crisp, and when he hits the first “When you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you,” it’s a different thing. You’re responding to how well he’s reproducing a performance, in addition to how well he performs the songs on his own. It does, at times, verge on parody — on the original recording of “You Go to My Head,” Garland famously flubbed the words, singing “I forgot the gol-durn words,” and doing a brief bit of scatting. On Wainwright’s reprisal, he does the same, and while there’s a frisson of applause when the audience recognizes it, it’s wholly unnecessary.
When Wainwright’s sister, Martha, comes out for “Stormy Weather,” it’s an outright tribute to Garland’s original, complete with intonation and cadence. It’s really almost as if Martha’s doing Rufus doing Judy at this point. However, it’s all minor quibbles: this is Rufus Wainwright paying homage to a performer whom he’s adored since he was very, very small, and he does it with aplomb and grace.
Also, and rather more importantly, Wainwright gives the many love songs here something which is almost wholly absent from Garland’s performances: passion. Songs such as “You Go To My Head” and “If Love Were All” might not have quite the reach-for-the-rafters vocal belting for which Garland was known, but Wainwright manages to make these songs ache with longing and desire in a way which Garland never really manages.
A factor both releases take into account is that response of other people to the music. The original ‘61 recording by Garland features an essay in the gatefold by Mort Lindsey, which collects the myriad reviews of her performance, and does an excellent job of capturing the fever pitch of excitement surrounding them. Wainwright’s gatefold has an equally-excellent — although more intimate — piece by his mother, Kate McGarrigale, explaining how the young Rufus responded to these songs at infancy. They’re both quite different in terms of tone and voice, but they both speak equally to the boundless, ageless appeal of the songs.
If you enjoy Wainwright’s music, there’s really no chance you’ll dislike his homage to one of the finest live recordings of all time. In the case of either the original Garland double LP or this triple LP, the performances are so stellar, you can appreciate them for the sheer talent on display — regardless of one’s interest in show tunes. Taken side-by-side, both versions of Judy at Carnegie Hall become a sort of grand work from which the listener can pick and choose, getting the big belters when needed, as well as quiet romanticism.