Randy Newman's Rock & Droll Circus

A couple of hours in the grip of America’s genius storyteller and his piano. Plus jokes!

Randy Newman's Rock & Droll Circus

It’s the evening of Monday, October 26. Randy Newman strolls onto stage at London’s Royal Festival Hall, arms swinging, jaw set, sits down neatly at his grand piano and launches right in. “I was born to make you happy,” he sings – and a couple of thousand adoring fans sigh, because they know he will. I Love To See You Smile, that opening song with its Cole Porter-ish jauntiness, is followed by Baltimore (“Man, it's hard just to live, just to live”), lest we forget he is also a bleak and melancholy man. Newman keeps up the light-and-dark, and the sly humour: he introduces “a couple of love songs” then plays sweet-sad I Miss You followed by It's Money That I Love with all its greedy gusto. It's like he's giving us warm-up exercises, marking out the mixed-feelings territory for the evening.

“He splashes through his songs like a child in wellies skips through puddles.”

He's in a fine mood, though, and very chatty. “God is going to speak to you now, through me,” he tells us before God's Song. “It's strange that He didn't choose Dylan – I know he was in town last week.” During Simon Smith And His Amazing Dancing Bear Newman points out the “leap of faith required for that high G”; he has a good old chinwag and then gets the audience participating on the chorus for his “geriatric rock'n'roll” song I'm Dead But I Don't Know It; and he makes the dry joke he must always make about how Tom Jones and Joe Cocker had hits with their rather cheerier versions of You Can Leave Your Hat On. When Newman plays it tonight it remains – gloriously, horribly – a song that is completely creepy, thoroughly libidinous, with that weary and controlling narrator making us, the engrossed listeners, complicit in whatever sordid stuff is going on. He is definitely not singing a hit record.

Randy Newman at the piano. Picture by Robb Bradley.

He splashes and plink-plonks through his songs like a child in wellies skips through puddles. Someone at the back of the hall yells out a request – Maybe I'm Doing It Wrong – and he plays it straight away, smiling. That New Orleansy piano, so relaxed and elegant, only disappoints (just a bit) during I Love LA, when it's hard not to want a little more pomp. It is perfect, though, on Louisiana 1927. Randy Newman's angriest and saddest songs just keep on being relevant and this might be the most poignant example – a beautiful song about federal government indifference to catastrophic flooding in 1927 that became an accurate indictment almost 80 years later, after Hurricane Katrina.

We get more than 30 songs in the two hours-plus set and it's almost exhausting, emotionally. After Marie, one of the saddest love songs from Newman's trove of sad love songs, we have his wonderfully silly satire Short People. Then we dip into his Oscar-winning Disney soundtracks with You've Got A Friend In Me, before more cheerful satire in Political Science (“Let's drop the big one now”) and then back to an even more regretful kind of sad in Losing You. The decades don't really separate the songs – tracks from his 2008 album *Harps And Angels could have sat happily on his classic ’70s and ’80s records, and so could the new tracks he plays tonight (Wandering Boy is especially tender and great). Somehow it's the way he inhabits so many discordant moods and characters, with humour and affection and zero judgement, that holds this extraordinary all-over-the-place collection together.

“You have to really love a country to be this disappointed by it.”

What he manages to do is love all the people, however terrible they may seem, and inveigle us into doing the same. I wonder how many have sung along to Sail Away before noticing they’re the words of a slave trader trying to lure people onto his ship? But there's no sleight of hand in Rednecks, which comes next tonight. “Despite all the songs I've written about racism, the problem hasn't got any better,” Newman says, not quite deadpan, during the introduction. “I haven't played this for a few years because it has a certain word in it,” he adds – not an apology for the n-word that litters the track, rather an acknowledgement that it makes us uncomfortable. Then he describes the 1970 episode of The Dick Cavett Show that prompted the song, when segregationist Georgian governor Lester Maddox was a guest and was shouted down by the New York audience “as if they were all out there fighting for civil rights every day”. Rednecks is still funny – that singalong “We don't know our ass from a hole in the ground” – but the anger that sneaks in with the comedy is possibly even stronger tonight than it was 40 years ago. You have to really love a country to be this disappointed by it.

And then, the very last song is Feels Like Home, from Harps And Angels. It is almost a lullaby – the audience is sighing again and it probably is time to go home. Newman's lovely voice strains sweetly on the high notes and we're all a bit worn out; he's made us sad, angry, dreamy, giddy, happy.

Setlist I Love To See You Smile / Baltimore / I Miss You / It's Money That I Love / God's Song / Simon Smith And The Amazing Dancing Bear / Putin / You Can Leave Your Hat On / I'm Dead But I Don't Know It / Jolly Coppers On Parade / My Life Is Good / She Chose Me / It's A Jungle Out There / Harps And Angels / I Think It's Going To Rain Today / Laugh And Be Happy / Birmingham / Maybe I'm Doing It Wrong / Marie / Short People / You've Got A Friend In Me / My Country / Political Science / Great Nations Of Europe / Losing You / Bad News From Home / Dixie Flyer / The World Isn't Fair / Louisiana 1927 / I Love LA / Wandering Boy / Sail Away / Rednecks / Feels Like Home

PHOTO: Robb Bradley

Watch an amazing Newman performance of I Think It's Going To Rain Today from 1971.