Blessed with marvelous range as a composer and insight as a lyricist, Wainwright had "big star" written all over him from the moment his first album appeared in 1998, but he's often disappointing live, and he has been slow to pick up a U.S. following.
Before an adoring audience, he sang every song as if it were the only time he'd ever done so. Wainwright thanked the audience and went on at length about how at home he felt onstage in London.
Backstage, he said audiences here were more open to variety in music than in the States, not so programmed by what they hear on the radio or by what's supposed to be cool at the moment. "It felt wonderful tonight," he said.
On the Tube ride back to the Charing Cross station, I thumbed through the copy of Time Out to narrow down Saturday's options — perhaps King Sunny Ade at the Royal Festival Hall, rapper Common at the intimate Jazz Cafe or a matinee performance of the musical "Jailhouse Rock" at the Piccadilly Theatre.
Elvis and Oasis
I still hadn't figured out what to do when a message at the hotel settled it. I had been trying to set up an interview with Oasis' Gallagher. He could do the interview but only on Saturday night. "Jailhouse Rock" in the afternoon and Oasis in the evening.
After buying a half-price ticket for "Jailhouse Rock" at the tkts booth in Leicester Square, a 10-minute walk from the hotel, there was time to visit the nearby National Portrait Gallery. It's free, except for special exhibits, and it's nice that it's not too snobbish to embrace rock culture.
The first photo you see is of Vivienne Westwood, who helped design the Sex Pistols' punk style (the torn black leather and safety pin look) in the '70s. On another wall, paintings of Paul McCartney and Elton John hang alongside portraits of former Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
More rock was showcased in the Proud Gallery, just around the corner from my hotel. The main exhibit featured photos of singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley, who drowned in 1997. The warm, intimate shots, all by Merri Cyr, capture Buckley's sweet, sad quality.
Both galleries were delights, which is more than you could say about "Jailhouse Rock."
I had hoped the musical would offer some imaginative interpretation of the Presley story, but it was a wooden reworking of one of Elvis' earliest films, "Jailhouse Rock," minus some of his most popular numbers, including, surprisingly, "Jailhouse Rock." It closed April 23 after a month's run.
After dinner, I took the Tube's Bakerloo Line from the hotel to the Marylebone station, leaving enough time to walk around the neighborhood before meeting Gallagher at the plush Landmark hotel. The Marylebone railway station itself has some rock 'n' roll history: The chase scene in the Beatles' film "A Hard Day's Night" was shot here.
Then it was off to the Landmark. For a while in the early '90s, Oasis' richly melodic, mostly optimistic brand of rock achieved a popularity in England that hadn't been seen since the days of the Beatles. But the band lost its touch and has been struggling to regain its footing. Gallagher thinks the band's new album, "Don't Believe the Truth," is its best since those glory days.
I asked him why so many young people in England start rock 'n' roll bands — and why fans are so passionate that even some U.S. groups, including the White Stripes, have been discovered here before they were in the States. His answer dealt with the rock tradition in England.
"There's even a network waiting for you," he replied. "Everyone knows someone in a band, so it doesn't seem so mysterious or so impossible. In Manchester, for instance, there are rehearsal spaces, guitar shops and lots of clubs to play. If you are any good, it's easy to create excitement. The country is so small that you can build a following quickly. The fans are just as passionate as the musicians. That's why people enjoy coming here to play."
After the interview, I took the Tube back to the Charing Cross station and looked around for somewhere to eat a late supper. After a couple of blocks, one bright light beckoned. Wagamama keeps late hours.
On Sunday, I had a late lunch at Cafe Pacifico, which I've eaten at so many times that it borders on superstition. The Mexican food restaurant, on a side street near the Covent Garden Tube stop, is noisy even when it's half-empty. Everyone seems to be celebrating something. The rain was starting by the time I headed to the Forum to see Bo Diddley, one of my childhood favorites.
The 2,100-capacity Forum is another former movie theater, this one in Kentish Town, several Tube stops from central London on the Northern Line (Kentish Town stop). This show wasn't sold out, which meant the scalpers raced to get to fans before they could see the ticket window was still open.