Randy Newman, Royal Festival Hall, London
Friday 21 May 2010
"No one is retiring from the rock'n'roll business anymore," quips Randy Newman. "Rock'n'roll is like chess but stupider. You've done all your best work at 14," he adds before launching into his typically arch "I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It)" where he encourages us to call out "he's dead, he's dead". We gamely do. The US satirist has never fitted the rock-god bill, he's always been a tad too portly around the gills – resembling an avuncular turtle with a sly, wry smile – but he's always attracted a loyal, similarly shaped, following. And as a lyricist he's right up there with Cohen, Lennon and Dylan.
Sitting alone at his grand piano, Newman kicked off his generous set – I counted 37 songs – with "It's Money That I Love", which contains the barbed sentiment "You used to worry about the poor/ You don't worry anymore." "I like to start with something spiritual," he deadpans. The 66-year-old Californian combines a Woody Allen-like delivery, with the provocative sensibilities of Curb Your Enthusiasm's Larry David. His droll, articulate songs rail against conformity, hypocrisy and censorship. On some numbers, such as "God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)" and "Rednecks", he comes across as much angrier than most so-called punks and he stills feels like a radical presence (tonight he references Shostakovich, Sibelius and Stravinsky), especially in our Cowell-shaped world.
In 2004, he performed a sensational set at the Barbican; six years later and his voice sounds a tad croakier, his anecdotes – about LA, his children, his Disney film scores – are a little creakier and less expansive. Near the start of his set it feels as though he's rattling through some of his loveliest songs, particularly "Living without You", "Birmingham" and the sumptuous "Baltimore", a song that essayed the daily woes of that US city's working class and underclass ("Hooker on the corner/ Waitin' for a train/ Drunk lyin' on the sidewalk/ Sleepin' in the rain") long before David Simon's The Wire. And, as at the Barbican, Newman bizarrely omits to perform his mordant Southern lament "Louisiana 1927". He could have dropped one of the Disney numbers, surely?
Nevertheless, his two-hour set is always riveting and "I Miss You", about his former wife, and "Marie" are exquisite. It was an honour to see this old radical.
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