Lonely At The Top

A few weeks ago, my friend John and I caught the first in what promises to be a busy few months of checking out some of our favourite songwriters at various venues around the British Isles. First up was Randy Newman who played two gigs at Dublin’s Vicar St. at the start of March. We had hoped to catch him there a couple of years ago, but he caught a sore throat and had to cancel. On the opening night this time, he began with Mama Told Me Not To Come and it was obvious that he was under the weather again and should probably have heeded the song’s advice. Fortunately, his head cold only affected him on a few songs and the rest of the show made me forget my own dose of the man ‘flu for a couple of hours

I first discovered Randy’s music when I picked up an LP of the Lonely at the Top compilation when I lived above Limerick’s Black Spot record shop over twenty years ago. I hadn’t heard much of his stuff before that, but the quality and range of the compositions and, in particular, the poetry and humour of his lyrics made me check out the rest of his work. In the early sixties, the teenaged Newman wrote numerous hits for singers like Gene Pitney and Dusty Springfield before deciding to become a performer at the end of that decade. He released six acclaimed studio albums between 1968 and 1979, but only four in the last three decades. The reason for this apparent slowdown is that he he’s composed over two dozen film scores since 1981. Three of his uncles, two cousins and a nephew are also Hollywood film composers and Randy has certainly done the family proud with twenty Academy Award nominations and two Oscars on his mantlepiece

Randy accompanied himself on a grand piano at Vicar St. and kept the audience entertained with his witty banter in between songs. Despite not feeling the best, he played a lengthy set that featured over thirty songs that mostly drew from his ten studio albums and also included two of his most popular movie songs, Parenthood’s I Love to See You Smile and You’ve Got a Friend in Me from Toy Story. His voice was less effective on these kind of songs and he even stopped during the latter to announce, “How shitty is that? Disney ought to come along and buy me!” He was much better on the dark, ironic numbers for which he is also known and he got a great reaction from his performances of Short People, Sail Away and Political Science. It was great to hear these songs performed with just his voice and piano and it almost felt like hearing them for the first time. It also brought home how relevant his lyrics are after all these years

As well as doing lighthearted movie songs and funny songs with a dark twist, Newman also has the ability to take the listener to some dark places. He is one of the few songwriters who places his words inside the mind of a whole range of different characters. There’s the racist on Rednecks, the guy who can only express his feelings when drunk on Marie and the creepy stalker on Suzanne. The darkest of all these, however, is the narrator of In Germany Before the War. Like many of his songs, he paints a picture in a few words of what appears to be an everyday event, but it is not until the final line that this story mirrors the melancholy nature of its tune

Newman’s voice was at its best on the night on the many sad songs that he chose to perform. He doesn’t write too many autobiographical songs, but the genuine sense of loss on I Miss You from Bad Love would suggest it was one. It was also hard not to be moved by the poignancy of one of his most covered tracks, I Think It’s Going to Rain Today. That closed the set before he returned for a brilliant encore of Lonely At the Top and Feels Like Home. It was certainly well worth making the trip to Dublin to see one of my favourite songwriters battle the elements to deliver an entertaining and accomplished set. Here are half a dozen, perhaps, more accomplished singers doing justice to Randy’s music and lyrics

Baltimore (Randy Newman cover) – The Tamlins

Lonely At The Top (Randy Newman cover) – The Divine Comedy

Sail Away (Randy Newman cover) – Harry Nilsson

God’s Song (Randy Newman cover) – John Martyn

I Think It’s Going To Rain Today (Randy Newman cover) – Dusty Springfield

In Germany Before The War (Randy Newman cover) – Marianne Faithfull