On Friday night, New York’s Town Hall was filled with family, friends, and followers of the late singer/songwriter Kate McGarrigle, who passed away last year at age 63 after battling sarcoma.
Performing songs from her rich catalog for the second night of this sarcoma fundraising tribute, the stage was filled with an eclectic array of musicians including Norah Jones, Emmylou Harris, Antony Hegarty, her sister/collaborator Anna McGarrigle as well as her children, Rufus and Martha Wainwright (from her marriage to Loudon Wainwright, who was not present but nevertheless “richly implicated in the evening” as banjo player Chaim Tannenbaum so brilliantly phrased it).
Kate, who released two seminal albums in the ’70s with her sister Anna, was a pioneer of cerebral folk music that was at once heartfelt and ironic: it was traditional music coming from connected urbanites (born in Montreal, living in New York) who wryly fetishized the perceived simplicities of rural life.
Living music legends in their own (wainw)right, Rufus and Martha understandably offered the most stirring performances of the night (in spite of wonderfully moving performances from Norah, Emmylou, and the stunningly talented jazz-folk newcomer Krystle Warren).
Rufus’ aching, unadorned take on “Southern Boys” was an early show highlight, as was his duet with Martha on “First Born,” which he introduced as “a song my mother claims was not written about me and I still don’t believe her to this day.” For her part, second-born Martha admitted to hating “First Born” her whole life until giving birth to a son herself in 2009.
In true tribute to the yin and yang of McGarrigle music, the night was as rousing as it was somber: Antony’s unearthly croon made “I Cried for Us” a heartbreaking highlight, while Justin Bond’s cabaret take on “Work Song” brought to life the song’s droll nostalgia for “Camptown Races” and “working so hard you died standing up.”
In spite of the sobering loss, the audience received firsthand evidence that the loving wit Kate personified still lives on through her family. While looking for a missing accordion onstage, Anna unhesitatingly quipped, “I guess it’s with Martha’s bra,” referring to her niece’s torch singer-y outfit.
McGarrigle style—full of sharp love, curiosity and humor—is still alive with Kate’s sisters and children.
(Jimmy Fallon, who performed Thursday night, was not present due to a family emergency.)