Martha Wainwright was keeping it in the family at the Union Chapel in Islington last week. Arcangelo, the singer-songwriter’s three-year-old son, joined her on stage and had the audience eating out of the palm of his tiny hand; the spectral presence of her mother, the folk legend Kate McGarrigle, was never far away; and the evening was peppered with references to intense sibling rivalry with her irritatingly talented brother Rufus.
Wainwright stole the show, though. A gutsy set drew mostly on her recent album Come Home to Mama, a paean to motherhood written in the aftermath of her mother’s death and the scarily premature birth of her son. She effortlessly seduced the audience with a combination of whip-smart humour, smutty talk and an endearing line in self-deprecation. The trademark heart-on-sleeve lyrics were delivered with dazzling vocals that ranged from a girlishness reminiscent of Cerys Matthews to a haunting, pared-back rendition of ‘Proserpina’, the last song her mother wrote.
Wainwright uses music as a way of working through and coming to terms with life’s shit. And it clearly works: given the harrowing nature of her themes, she cut a remarkably cheerful figure. Following a visceral delivery of ‘La vie en rose’, which showed her at her torchy best, she returned to the stage one final time and gave us ‘Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole’, her 2004 diatribe against her famous father. The words are still coruscating but she couldn’t keep the smile off her face.