Saturday, November 19, 2011

Too Rich To Ignore: Randy Newman's Live in London

Quite a few artists have been revisiting their catalogues lately with new recordings, either in studio or live. Ray Davies recorded some oldies with a local choir, then redid some of the same tunes with special guest stars including Mumford and Sons and Bruce Springsteen. Guy Clark’s latest album is the all live Songs and Stories. And Randy Newman, who is neither dead, nor retired (more on that later) has recorded two volumes of new studio versions of classic tunes, and now presents us with Live in London (Nonesuch, 2011). a multimedia extravaganza of epic proportion. Okay, that may be hyperbole, but let’s call it irony since Mr. Newman is quite familiar with that.

The new set from Nonesuch Records includes a DVD of a live broadcast done for BBC television in June 2008, and a CD of the same show. The recording is beautifully done and the performance enhanced by the presence of the BBC Concert Orchestra under the direction of Robert Zeigler. Newman says he has worked with bad conductors (including himself) and good conductors, and that Zeigler is one of the good ones. The charts are sympathetic with Randy’s solo piano accompaniment, and watching him in shirtsleeves in front of the orchestra (all dressed in black) provides most of the video excitement in the programme.

Newman is not a rock and roller, although he seems to place himself squarely in that camp. He has long told a story about the creation of a song (“Sail Away”) for a proposed rock opera which would feature participation from a bevy of rock stars, “Neil and Bob, and me” Randy would quip. The audience would howl. Then he would sing, “in America you get food to eat, don’t have to run through the jungle and scuff up your feet…” This concert saves “Sail Away” to the end, but it had also appeared on Randy Newman at the Odeon, his last live concert video recorded in 1983.

Nonesuch (and the BBC) give us nearly 2 dozen of Newman’s classic songs. Even if the songs aren’t particularly familiar to you, trust me, they are classics. The missing piece would be the Disney material, but a recent solo appearance on PBS's Austin City Limits found him leading off with “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” from Toy Story. The camera found kids in the audience singing along with gusto. Newman talks about the Disney material in one of his introductory chats, he wonders why he doesn’t record more albums, he wonders why rock’n’rollers don’t retire (they just keep releasing albums worse than their old ones). His comments are entertaining, thought provoking and draw laughs and knowing smiles from the audience. Not just the audience at the gig either, you’ll find yourself chuckling along too.

Randy Newman
I’ve seen Randy Newman a couple of times in concert. He is a wonderful showman, self-effacing, witty, ironic. His handling of an encore was unique: he would stand-up from the piano bench walk to the curtain, fumble for a moment as if he couldn’t find a gap, and return to the piano to play some more. In this video, he makes no attempt to move, he just plays the encore. We all knew he was coming back anyway! The other thing I noticed about his concerts – and I saw three, in a five year period (and a couple TV appearances during the same time period) – was that he wore the same clothes each time. My wife was throwing my favourite shirts out after a year; Randy Newman got to keep his and wear it on stage! I was impressed.

It’s really all about the songs though. And the songs are tremendous. Starting with “The Great Nations of Europe” (which the British audience seems a bit reserved about) through “Marie,” “It’s Money That I Love,” and “Mama Told Me Not To Come,” Newman presents a broad look at his career. “Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear” seems to really capture the crowd’s interest. Is it because it was a hit for their own Alan Price? That was in the mid-Sixties; can it be? Randy says after “Simon Smith” that he’s playing the hits, “here’s the other one…” and launches in to “Short People.” He covers all eras, and insults, or at least teases everyone, especially George W. Bush with the withering “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country.” Was Bush ever compared to Hitler or Stalin before?

The orchestra plays in many of the songs offering the same support as we’ve heard on his studio albums: rich string backings, beautifully played. But Newman is also remarkable on his own, simply singing over his own piano. His first live album, 1971’s Live, proved that. And forty years of touring has only helped. By the time he concludes with a rendition of “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today” you know that you’ve just been privileged to spend time with a very talented man, a gifted songwriter, but more than that, a wit and a raconteur. If you don’t have any Randy Newman albums you have to ask yourself, “Why not?” This is a good place to start, but don’t stop here, his back catalogue is too rich to ignore.

David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas with his wife. Critics at Large's Kevin Courrier has written the only (so far) critical biography of Newman called Randy Newman's American Dreams which David Kidney reviews here.

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