REVIEW: Randy Newman at the Royal Festival Hall,

Randy Newman in New Orleans in 2008.
Photo credit: Masahiro Sumori/Creative Commons


Randy Newman
(Royal Festival Hall, 26th October. Review by Chris Parker)

On leaving this engaging two-hour solo concert, the urge to sing aloud the catchy chorus of its first encore was almost irresistible. Unfortunately, said urge had to be resisted, because the song in question was “Rednecks”, and its ear-worm refrain famously contains the N-word. The struggle, however, perfectly encapsulates Randy Newman’s unique artistic gift: he is able to wrap pungent, acerbic social commentary in the most innocent-sounding tunes.

Unlike many other contemporary singer-songwriters (Loudon Wainwright, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor), Newman, as he himself pointed out during one of his characteristically laconic inter-song comments, does not rely on his own emotional life for material. Instead, he casts a somewhat jaundiced eye around him and reports what he sees, filtered through a sharp, but often self-deprecating sensibility and spiced with sardonic wit. Of late, this method has resulted in an unforgivingly dispassionate portrait of Vladimir Putin, a lightning tour of the beginnings of colonialism (The Great Nations of Europe), a rueful “letter” to Karl Marx (The World isn’t Fair) and a meditation on near-death experiences (Harps and Angels) – all performed at this concert – but it is best illustrated by the many classics in Newman’s back-catalogue.

God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind) is a perfect example: an insinuatingly charming melody, lyrics that skewer the irrationality of the religious impulse, Newman’s God admitting: “I recoil in horror from the foulness of thee/From the squalor, and the filth, and the misery/How we laugh up here in heaven at the prayers you offer me/That’s why I love mankind.” Another: My Life is Good, an unblinking portrait of the privileged, servant-dependent life taken for granted by his LA contemporaries. Arguably the most effective use of this method, though, is found in Sail Away, an insinuating, beguilingly lovely melody designed to charm the listener with a catalogue of the attractions of life across “the mighty ocean” – a life of slavery, of course, but presented thus: “You’ll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day … ain’t no mamba snake/Just the sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake”.

And – possibly Newman’s most celebrated song – the aforementioned Rednecks, which he prefaced with a lengthy (for him) Parental Advisory Notice. As Tom Lehrer memorably pointed out in his satire on protest songs, purveyors of such material frequently present themselves as proponents of equality, freedom and justice, “unlike all of you squares”; Newman is too nuanced and subtle a thinker to be categorised alongside such singers. His archetypal redneck, Lester Maddox, “may be a fool but he’s our fool”, whom the “smart-ass” New York audience is wrong to laugh at; so-called racial equality has resulted in the freedom “to be put in a cage in Harlem in New York City … in Hough in Cleveland … in East St. Louis” etc. As Newman sarcastically pointed out, protest songs about race have resulted in the elimination of all racial prejudice in the US.

The voice may be croakier than ever (though his piano playing remains jazzily eloquent), and his very viability as a performer may be questioned (by himself – at one point he encouraged those present to announce his death in a somewhat bizarre call-and-response interlude), but Randy Newman is undeniably still a commanding presence on stage, his ability to captivate and engage an audience undiminished, and the standing ovation he received at the end of this concert was richly deserved.

SET LISTS (via setlist dot fm)

FIRST SET

Feels Like Home
Baltimore
It's Money That I Love
Putin
Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear
God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)
Jolly Coppers on Parade
I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It)
Laugh and Be Happy
You Can Leave Your Hat On
Harps and Angels
I Love to See You Smile
Birmingham
I Think It's Going to Rain Today

SECOND SET

Suzanne
Maybe I'm Doing It Wrong
My Life Is Good
The World Isn't Fair
Short People
You've Got a Friend in Me
She Chose Me
Political Science
The Great Nations of Europe
Where's My Wandering Boy Tonight?
Bad News From Home
Louisiana 1927
Dixie Flyer
It's a Jungle Out There
Sail Away

ENCORES

Rednecks
Losing You

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