Randy Newman review – a great American songbook all by himself

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
The self-deprecating singer played two hours’ worth of subtle character pieces and droll narratives of a kind that nobody else can write

“I have no instinct for hits,” Randy Newman confesses during tonight’s show. “If I see one coming, I dodge out of its way.” To illustrate his point, he plays a few bars of his 1972 non-hit You Can Leave Your Hat On in the style of the decidedly more popular versions by Joe Cocker and Tom Jones, both “shifted up a sixth” and loosened from the shackles of subtlety. “I could’ve done it like that, I just didn’t think of it,” he laments.

Yet this self-deprecating aside (one of many he makes tonight) only serves to underline the 71-year-old’s heightened instinct for irony and character. As voiced in Newman’s droll, froggish tones, the song’s seedy protagonist becomes pathetically dependent on the woman he’s ordering around; as belted by Tom Jones, he’s only ever Tom Jones.

Sitting alone at his piano dressed in dad jeans and sneakers, Newman is hardly a chameleon, but he has spent much of his career inhabiting flawed characters and their ugly mindsets with penetrating wit and brevity. Few songwriters can cut to the quick the way he does on God’s Song, nor exercise the chilling restraint of In Germany Before the War, a pocket allegory for a nation’s lost innocence inspired by 1930s serial killer Peter Kürten. While introducing You’ve Got a Friend in Me, the Toy Story theme for which he’s best known by those outside his cultish core of devotees, Newman deadpans: “I write really weird songs, so I’m glad I can also write crap like this.” His bank manager would no doubt agree, but the difference between that track and, say, Rednecks, is the difference between a job well done and a job only he can do.

Randy Newman
Piano man … Randy Newman. Photograph: Ross Gilmore/Redferns

Putin, one of three new songs Newman plays tonight, is proof that his talents remain undimmed – though it obviously helps that the Russian president’s preening vanity (“He can power a nuclear reactor with the left side of his brain”) makes him a natural Newman foil. The highlight, however, comes with A Wedding in Cherokee County, one of his strangest, most beautiful songs, salvaged from a long-abandoned rock opera about Albania (“A plucky little country I was always a big fan of”) and relocated to the backwoods of Alabama, yet oddly universal in its concerns.

Even after two hours and 33 songs in his company, you leave thinking about the songs that he doesn’t manage to squeeze in (Guilty, Sail Away or Dayton, Ohio - 1903), which only emphasises the vastness and value of his repertoire. Newman might not have hits to spare, but he remains a great American songbook unto himself.

Contributor

Barry Nicolson

The GuardianTramp

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