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Randy Newman, Royal Festival Hall, London, May 19th 2010

May 21, 2010

I first came across Randy Newman when the 1978 controversy about the song Short People reached as far as the grubby pages of the NME. When I heard the record, I loved it – a hilarious and scathing satire on prejudice and stupidity. Alas, this wasn’t the reaction in much of the USA (and perhaps elsewhere), where the irony just whizzed right over the heads of millions. The hysterical backlash became almost as entertaining as the song and I wanted to find out more about Newman. On hearing Sail Away I was hooked by his brilliant, scathing songwriting and fine playing:
   In America you’ll get food to eat,
   Won’t have to run through the jungle
   And scuff up your feet,
   You’ll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day,
   It’s great to be an American.

I’m not sure if Newman was accused of being a slave-trader as well as a hater of short people, but his wonderful back catalogue shows him to be a biting but sensitive commentator on American life. He also writes heart-breaking love songs, such as When She Loved Me (sung by Sarah McLachlan) from the Toy Story 2 soundtrack. Indeed, it’s through his soundtrack work that I suspect many younger people know him these days – Toy Story, Toy Story 2, A Bug’s Life and Monsters Inc. were all elevated by the presence of his music. Newman is one of the ‘greats’ I’ve never seen live before, so I’ve been looking forward to this show for a long time – it was originally scheduled for 18 months ago, but Newman had to pull out due to ill health.

As the lights went down, Newman sauntered onto the stage (which was bare except for his grand piano and stool), looking old for his 66 years, but with a glint in his eye. He started into It’s Money That I Love, a perfect example of one of the major thematic strands of his music – Americans Can Be Amazingly Shallow And Only Respect Money. The theme is picked up by more of tonight’s songs, notably The World Isn’t Fair and I Love LA, and highlights one of the great tensions in Newman’s work: he’s been one of the sharpest and most pertinent critics of America and its ways in the past 40 years, but he’s resolutely in love with America and its people too.

Sure enough, we get the acidic songs aimed straight at the hearts of bigots, ignoramuses and racists – Yellow Man, Short People, Birmingham, Political Science and Rednecks – but I admire Newman’s fine sense of history in laying much of the ‘blame’ for racism and genocide at the door of old Europe. Sail Away, The Great Nations Of Europe and In Germany Before The War detail the hideous faults of the Old World, but Newman doesn’t let America off the hook. In fact, he suggests that the new start promised to immigrants by the New World is a nice dream, but a dream nonetheless – we’re all to blame for the sins of the world.

His acerbic outlook is demonstrated by a few of his amusing between-song remarks. As the stage turned a lurid yellow for Yellow Man, he suggested this was the special ‘hepatitis lighting’ and when talking about his late father, he said, ‘… but I think he’s still watching us from… down there somewhere…’ Despite this lovable prickliness, what struck me again about tonight was just how many great love songs he’s written – and how many of them detail his own faults and weaknesses. Living Without You, Love Story (You And Me), Losing You, I Miss You (written ‘for my first wife when I was married to my second’) and Feels Like Home are all poignant and finely observed meditations on love, betrayal and loneliness.

Throughout the show, Newman’s piano-playing was wonderful – from rolling bluesy ragtime to chugging rock and delicate ballads – but his voice is cracking here and there these days, which makes the evening more poignant. The musical giants of the late 1960s are now old men and women, but artists like Newman still have the craft, humour and poise to detail those changes just as brilliantly as they sang of the upheavals in the world all those years ago. A memorable evening, with an impressive 33 songs in all, finished off by the ‘hit’ from his very first album, I Think It’s Going To Rain Today:
   Scarecrows dressed in the latest styles,
   With frozen smiles to chase love away,
   Human kindness is overflowing,
   And I think it’s going to rain today.

One Comment leave one →
  1. paul dionne permalink
    May 27, 2010 2:04 pm

    Guy, nice job on this one. I love reading all of these reviews….

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