Wainwright’s Songs Are For, and With, His Father

Loudon Wainwrigth III will play Guild Hall on Friday, June 28. Ross Haflin photo

It was May 24, 2018. With a strum of his guitar, Loudon Wainwright III took to the El Portal stage in front of a sold-out audience, who welcomed him with a soft applause as the cameras rolled.

“Last week I attended a family affair,” he sang in his borderline talking blues style. “And a few remarked upon my recent growth of facial hair/‘You look just like your father did with that beard,’ someone said/I answered back, ‘I am him, even though my old man’s dead.’”

Wainwright never wanted to be his father, the esteemed Life magazine columnist Loudon Wainwright Jr., he continues singing. Well, at first he did. He loved and looked up to him as a little kid — “a numeral with his name” — but soon resented growing up in his tall, dark shadow, without the fatherly love and attention he craved.

In less than five minutes, Wainwright has laid his story bare on stage, ending the title track of his Netflix special, “Surviving Twin,” with a musical roar: “The beard is a reminder/I’m a living part of him/Although my father’s dead and gone/I’m his surviving twin.”

The next 90 minutes are what Wainwright calls a “posthumous collaboration,” combining and connecting his songs with columns by his late father, published as “The View From Here” from 1964 to 1972 in Lifemagazine.

Performed at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor almost two years ago, “Surviving Twin” will undoubtedly come up during GE Smith’s “Portraits” series, kicking off with Wainwright and Wesley Stace on Friday, June 28, at Guild Hall in East Hampton.

“Every time I do ‘Surviving Twin,’ it’s always cathartic for me,” Wainwright said. “My dad died in 1988, so it’s been over 30 years, but when I perform the show, or even do parts of the show — I imagine I’ll do one or two things from the show at Guild Hall — it’s like my dad and I are doing something together, which is a nice feeling at this point.”

GE Smith

Now in his fourth year of “Portraits,” Smith acts as host, gathering a roster of exclusive artists and rare couplings for intimate evenings of music and conversation, as if they were alone at home.

“The way I always looked at it was, ‘If I was sitting in this person’s living room and we had our instruments with us, what would happen?’” the former “Saturday Night Live” band leader explained. “We’d talk, we’d play songs and we might say, ‘Oh yeah, do you remember that song by The Temptations?’ And we’d play a little bit of it.

“That often happens at these shows, and the audiences have seemed to appreciate that, not just hearing the songs they know the person for,” he continued. “They also hear some information about where this person came from, what did they listen to when they were kids, what made them want to play music.”

It was Wainwright’s father who gifted his 13-year-old son with a guitar — one that was actually his own that he’d never learned to play — and encouraged the young boy to express himself through music.

“When I started to play and write songs, I think he was delighted by that prospect,” Wainwright recalled. “I’ve likened the process to fishing. Every day, I’ve got my line in the water, so to speak. I’m waiting for a nibble or a tug, an idea for a song, and then the question is, of course, catching it and getting it in the boat, back on shore.

“It is a process. It is a mysterious process — a bit like fatherhood,” he said. “I’ve done it for a long time and I still haven’t figured out how it works, but there’s a magical quality when a song comes through, if you will.”

The folk singer’s prolific, five-decades-long career has included 26 studio albums interspersed with acting roles in film and television, though much of his recent work has revolved around his namesake.

“He’s brave to go that far into the true family saga,” Smith said. “Most folks keep that stuff to themselves. I admire him for that. And I’m sure we’ll talk about that.”

A father himself — “It’s been over 45 years now, and I know what a difficult job it is,” he said — Wainwright raised a musical troupe of his own, including Rufus and Martha Wainwright, and Lucy Wainwright Roche.

And, yet, his role in it all — as a father, as a son, as a man — is still a paradox.

“I can’t say that I’ve figured any of it out, or doing the show has solved or fixed the problem for me. It’s one of those big things in life that never gets solved,” he said. “Now, I’m a grandfather, which is a whole other ball of wax — a much smaller, easier ball of wax, I must say.”

To those struggling with their own relationships with their fathers, Wainwright says, “Good luck,” with a lighthearted laugh.

“Despite the fact that I am a father and a son, there’s nothing I could say except to come to the show,” he said, “and we’ll all figure it out together.”

GE Smith will present “Portraits,” featuring Loudon Wainwright III and Wesley Stace, on Friday, June 28, at 8 p.m. at Guild Hall, located at 158 Main Street in East Hampton. Tickets range from $55 to $150, or $50 to $145 for members.

The series will continue with Dawes on July 25, and Tommy Emmanuel and Amy Helm on August 13. For more information, call (631) 324-0806 or visit guildhall.org.