Randy Newman, Royal Festival Hall, London


Simon O'Hagan
Wednesday 29 February 2012 18:02

Randy Newman always was old before his time, but on the evidence of this memorable evening, the 68-year-old American finally seems to have reached the age he was born to be.

Funny, scathing, at times unflinchingly bleak, Newman’s songs express a set of values and concerns that touch on the work of other greats – Toms Waits and Lehrer both spring to mind, likewise Stephen Sondheim - but he remains essentially uncategorisable.

On occasions the experience – a packed auditorium, an artist alone on stage with his piano – was akin to a Schubert recital, so exquisite and so deft was Newman’s rendering of human experience. A deceptively bumbling figure in grey jacket and trousers, he was razor-sharp throughout a two-hour performance in which he sang no fewer than 36 songs.

Born and largely brought up in Los Angeles, Newman spent periods as a child in New Orleans, and the ragtime influence on his music is marked. He released his first album in 1968, had a golden period in the 1970s, and in the 1990s he came again as a contributor of music to Pixar movies.

The audience’s relatively muted response to 'You’ve Got A Friend In Me', the best known of Newman’s Toy Story songs, suggested a misplaced purism on their part. Perhaps mistaking sentiment for sentimentality, they were more comfortable with Newman the satirist, and certainly the numbers in that vein – 'Political Science', with its refrain of 'Let’s drop the big one now', and the much misunderstood 'Short People' (it was testimony to our intelligence, Newman told us, that the song was never a hit in the UK) were highlights.

But it was the songs that did not attempt to offer comfort that really stood out. Newman got a laugh (and there were many over the course of the evening) when he introduced 'I Miss You' by telling us that it was written about his first wife while he was married to his second, but the open, honest way it confronted emotional pain was profoundly affecting. A similar kind of darkness fell when he sang 'Bad News From Home' and 'Losing You'.

Newman’s blend of humour and pathos is not unique, but his wizened, hugely expressive voice certainly is, and it does the job now as well as it ever did. As for those spine-tingling piano chords, where does he find them? That’s the sound that may prove his most lasting legacy.

Follow Simon on Twitter @SimonOHagan

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