Musicians from the Great White North — including Rufus Wainwright, Gentleman Reg and Joel Gibb of The Hidden Cameras — challenge traditional notions of the sound heard when gay men make music
GAY FOR PLAY
The Hidden Cameras, Gentleman Reg,
The O’s at Hailey’s, 122 W Mulberry St. Denton.
Nov. 13 at 9 p.m. $8. HaileysClub.com.
Rufus Wainwright at Bass Hall, 525 Commerce St, Fort Worth.
Nov. 14 at 8 p.m. $21â€“$49. BassHall.com.
"Gay music" is a term of questionable legitimacy. In theory, it’s broad enough to encapsulate all genres of music but usually is reduced to show tunes and dance tracks.
But the ghetto of gay music seems to be gentrifying. New artists who are incidentally gay don’t have to resign themselves to old-school labels. Unlike Elton and K.D., who came out after their careers had already cemented their fanbases and styles, gay musicians now are coming out from the start and spanning the spectrum of music.
There’s a humorous irony about Rufus Wainwright touring in support of a live album. His recent release, Milwaukee At Last!!!, captures his sold out performance at the Pabst Theatre. He assures his appearance isn’t vanity overkill. In fact, it’s just because he’s hungry.
"I have to do shows here and there to afford my Japanese dinners," the gay singer jokes.
The reality is, Wainwright isn’t touring to support his newest CD or to even score some decent sushi. His recent string of concerts is sort of a warm-up to his upcoming album of original material.
Wainwright’s listeners have been under the spell his eclectic song stylings for more than a decade. He has also become the poster child for gay musicians who straddle the lines of sexuality and art but can’t figure where to sway.
From acoustic gems a la "Gay Messiah" to cabaret torch songs in his iconic Rufus Does Judy concert album — where he took on Judy Garland performing her signature tunes and sometimes in her signature outfits — Wainwright’s musical choices could easily be career killers. Instead, they have kept him interesting.
"I feel so fortunate because when I decided to be out and sing about it, it was without any filter. It was a critical time right after big artists had come out. K.D. Lang survived and thrived. I felt in a sort of pioneering position as opposed to missionary," he says.
There is no issue of Wainwright’s orientation, just a truth that any listener can relate to. He’s like an old friend who introduces his boyfriend without much fanfare, leaving the reaction to the listener. Anything more just isn’t necessary.
But he isn’t overly fond of the current state of music considered "gay."
"The music that is marketed to clubs and the community is dreck! My only issue is that there is a small percentage of gays who have the most impeccable taste in music. The majority, however, are dismal," he says.
It may sound bitchy, but Wainwright holds music to a high standard. He wants the community to venture out of expected music options. And he knows he has to provide it.
"First, you just have to be great and then take it from there. I mean, you live by this shit and you die by this shit. Why expect less? Or even offer it?"
Gentleman Reg’s white-blond hair and matching eyebrows against his pale skin make him look like the prototype of Nordic genetics. He’s both handsome and ghostly, with looks intimidating and serious. But he lives up to his moniker.
Reg Vermue’s playful voice comes as a surprise. It doesn’t match his striking appearance or the slight cherub rasp he sings with. His other surprise is his CD, Jet Black, an album of alternative-indie-gay-folk-pop that is one of the more enjoyable releases of the year. And it represents Vermue’s official introduction to the States.
"It’s one of those funny things: We’ve been playing in Canada for ages, we have four records but the United States never seemed like a possibility to me," he says.
The 34-year-old admits he’s not huge in Canada either, though his music has found a life there and in Europe. Now he’s on the road bringing his brand of pop rock south of the border while performing music that is gay but not "gay music."
"Black doesn’t have many explicitly queer lyrics, but pronouns are what they are," he says. "It’s never a statement or an agenda. I just wanna write to express myself this way."
Which is precisely the direction gay music is going.
"I come from an indie, punk rock background. I always felt ‘not straight’ but it was hard finding where to fit in," he says.
So he turned it into his own music with a strong gay identity in songs such as 2002’s "Two Boys in Love" and 2004’s "The Boyfriend Song." And although his queerness got him immediate attention, focus ultimately shifted to his musical cred: "[People] focused on the gay stuff early on but now it’s not so much," he says.
As he’s finding a new audience in America, he does seem to be finding his spot in the LGBT music continuum.
"Sometimes I do feel like people wanna see drag queens and party music when I play gay events. But with this tour, we’ve had a much more queer audience. That’s been nice," he says.
Joel Gibb is an enigma. He’ll play the media game but on his own terms with responses akin to the aloofness of Andy Warhol. Answers are short except when he questions the questions. He’s so in his head that interviews can be frustrating. Best to focus on his music.
Gibb fronts The Hidden Cameras, a collective band with an ever-changing lineup — think a Canadian version of Polyphonic Spree. Gentleman Reg was even a member once. He once described his group’s music as "gay folk church music" but in last month’s release, Origin: Orphan, Cameras enters a definite pop realm without losing the band’s signature sound.
"We were playing around with genre more in this album. I feel like it truly represents the band," Gibb says.
Orphan is perhaps the band’s most commercial album to date. It plays at times like early R.E.M. and Interpol if they took themselves less seriously. But it’s distinctly Gibb who is the mastermind behind the band but never the diva. He told The Torontoist last year that members have their crucial place in the band.
"I like the fact that every person has their own unique relationship to the band, putting in what they can put in, and I think that’s great."
While the band has some gay members, it’s a mix of personalities. The Hidden Cameras blurs the line between straight and gay by being an open book. Of course, Gibb doesn’t give it much thought.
"It’s hard to say because I’ve never been in the closet. I feel like gay music has broadened. It’s still the same in some ways but for us, it’s not a gay thing or mainstream," he says.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 13, 2009.