It was a remarkably diverse cross-section of punters that descended on the south bank's Royal Festival Hall last night; Randy Newman's dual role of cult, irreverent songwriter and Disney's composer in residence has provided him with an oddball audience that ranges from septuagenarian liberals to prepubescent Pixar fans.
Now that Newman is probably better known for his work for the big screen, it is sometimes easy to forget that he was, and remains, one of the finest songwriters of the post-war period, and Tuesday night served as a perfect reminder. Taking to an ominously empty stage, populated solely by a Steinway grand piano, 68 year-old Newman took us through over 30 songs from his long career, telling stories, cracking gags and taking requests along the way.
Both Newman and the audience were in fine spirits, with his trademark anecdotal introductions offering the same avuncular charm that is ingrained in his lyrics. The wry songs have lost none of their wit, and the more profound, none of their bite. Short People and Political Science still invoke chuckles from around the auditorium, but it was the love songs that marked the high points of the evening. His voice is going, it is plain to see, but his piano playing has lost none of its technical proficiency, not missing a note all evening, and a haunting rendition of Marie, an apologetic ballad to Newman's first wife, early in the first half swirled around a concert hall whose population was now universally transfixed.
It is Newman's willingness to bear his soul and make himself completely vulnerable to his audience that makes these songs, some of them now over 40 years-old, as evocative now as they were when they were written, and as his shot vocal chords fruitlessly reach for the notes, it seems to make it all the more beautiful. The emotional zenith arrived with his 1999 track I Miss You, whose introduction, "this is a song I wrote about my first wife when I was married to my second" made it one of the most heartbreakingly honest performances I have ever seen. Other highlights included Real Emotional Girl, Louisiana 1927 and Dixie Flyer.
Randy Newman has often spoken of his regret at not producing more studio albums, but there seems to be nothing in his back-catalogue that he is ashamed of. Amongst a more jovial first half were his Toy Story refrain, You've Got a Friend In Me, Simon Smith & The Amazing Dancing Bear, I love L.A. and The World Isn't Fair, whilst the more serious side of the repertoire arrived after the break. There is no finer example of Newman's compositional abilities than in In Germany Before The War a song about child killer, Peter Kürten, which can happily sit up there with Schubert's Leider as some of the finest songwriting ever produced, with its rich musical imagery; child-like, discordant major inflections and hauntingly beautiful descending chromatic sequences.
The evening ended with an encore consisting of Lonely at the top (a song that was written for, and subsequently rejected by, Frank Sinatra) and a mesmerizing rendition of one of his most recent works, Feels Like Home, an out-and-out love song from his last album, Harps & Angels, which is one of the rare works that seems to include no hint of cynicism or sarcasm, the result of which had much of the audience tight-throated at least, and brought the recital to an ethereal terminus. There were a few murmurs of disappointment from those disgruntled to see the lack of orchestral accompaniment on the stage at the beginning of the evening, but this show went on to prove that the best way to see a true songwriter such as Randy Newman perform his songs, is in the way in which they were written: a disheveled old man with a hideous amount of talent, sitting on a piano stool and pouring his heart out.
Randy Newman's European tour continues in Dublin on 1 March.
Follow Jack Pelling on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jrpelling