Randy Newman, Royal Festival Hall, London
Gotye, Shepherds Bush Empire, London
Wouter de Backer, aka Gotye, may have a No1 under his belt, but he's a reluctant star. For a lesson in performance, over to Randy ...
Sunday 04 March 2012
He was the start of the smart, Randy Newman. Cleverness had existed in popular song before, of course, from Cole Porter and Noël Coward through to Tom Lehrer, but "clever" and "smart" are different.
When this Los Angeles Jewish 20-something emerged as a solo artist in the late Sixties with a style so arch it could support a cathedral, it heralded a new age of intellectual schmaltz. It relied on assumed shared knowledge, on what was not being said as much as what was said.
People think that Americans don't "get" irony, but that overlooks the fact that Americans are among the greatest exponents of it. "Most of my songs aren't autobiographical," he confirms, "or I'd be in an institution ..." Tonight's first revelation is that Randy Newman isn't very tall. Which, if you hadn't already read that he described his most famous song "Short People" as being written from the perspective of "a lunatic", ought to squash once and for all that there's any having-it-both-ways at play. "This is the only English-speaking country where this wasn't a hit," he says tonight. "It's a testimonial to your intelligence."
It's odd that Newman has spent so much of his career making self-deprecating gags about his supposed lack of success. Nevertheless, the aura of the cult hero surrounds him, and if there's one thing that's insufferable about being at a Randy Newman show, it's being around hundreds of people whose self-image is predicated on being the sort of person who "gets" Randy Newman.
It's a minor moan, and Newman doesn't cater too much to the love-in mentality. There's plenty to admire about this rambling tour of the 68-year-old's catalogue, which begins with "It's Money That I Love", a blues pastiche that reveals his stylistic debt to Ray Charles.
Satire is, of course, Newman's forte, and in that vein we get his slave-trade sales pitch "Sail Away", the gung-ho pseudo patriotism of "Political Science", the imagined Karl Marx conversation "The World Isn't Fair" and the gloriously self-aware "I'm Dead But I Don't Know It".
Sincerity is on his palette too. "I Miss You", trailed as "a love song I wrote for my first wife ... while married to my second", brings a lump to the throat, and "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" conjures an atmosphere of understated doom.
One might expect Newman to gloss over the lowbrow but lucrative side to his career, writing songs for Pixar movies. Au contraire: bold as brass, he plays "You've Got a Friend in Me" and feigns annoyance at the animated characters' rudeness for "talking over it".
The finest moment is one of his most subtle pieces. "In Germany Before the War" is a song written in the voice of serial killer Peter Kürten, in which the murder of a child is never actually depicted. Again, it's what isn't said that chills you to the bone.
The first thing to learn about Gotye is how you say it: "Gaultier" (as in Jean-Paul). Although that, like everything else about him, is a matter of personal taste. With his wavy hair and V-neck T-shirt, surrounded by keyboards, samplers, cymbals and tambourines, Gotye – aka Belgian-Australian multi-instrumentalist Wouter "Wally" de Backer – is oddly reminiscent of Seventies DJ Peter Powell, which somehow fits the deeply unhip nature of his sources. Gotye has struck chart gold by combining a semi-experimental Euro-dance aesthetic with the melodies of Seventies/Eighties AOR. Set opener "Eyes Wide Open", for instance, could be straight off the first Go West album.
You sense that the stage isn't where Gotye is happiest. When he tells us this is his last London show for some time, he tells a disappointed crowd to listen to the records instead. "They're magical: they happen again and again." Which merely adds to the impression that Gotye is a studio project dragged on to a stage. Not kicking, not screaming.
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, originators of the garage-blues revival, return, after a hiatus, with shows at The Haunt, Brighton (Tue), The Scala, London (Thu) and the ATP weekender at Butlin's, Minehead (Fri). Chart-topping rap crew Rizzle Kicks play the Academy, Oxford (Thu), Academy, Bristol (Fri) and Princess Pavilion, Falmouth (Sat).
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