"It's a tough venue for that one," admits Randy Newman at the conclusion of It's Money That I Love, a coarse discourse on the not-so-cheap thrills affordable to those with, as John Cleese once put it in a classic Monty Python sketch on merchant bankers, "the most startling quantities of cash."
That the comment is made from the fabulous St. Luke's in London with the BBC Concert Orchestra on standby just makes Newman's new CD/DVD set Live in London all the more fun. It is an exquisite concert snapshot of the famed composer in all his sensitive and sardonic glory.
Newman has always maintained two contrasting performance profiles, neither of which involved a conventional band. The first is solo, just Newman and a piano. This is the setting he has operated within most, from the 1971 album Randy Newman Live, his only other concert recording, to last year's wonderful performance at the Lexington Opera House. The other is with a full orchestra. No guitars, no rhythm sections — just the piano and the majestic arrangements that have adorned Newman's recordings for the past four-plus decades. Live in London dabbles in both.
The BBC Orchestra ignites the historical indignation of the album-opening The Great Nations of Europe, sets up the unsettling yet quite beautiful Southern deflation of Louisiana 1927 and underscores the discreet sentimentality of the gorgeous Feels Like Home. Like so many of the orchestral tunes on Live in London, the collaborations seem like hopeless mismatches at first — eloquent strings with broad Americana undercurrents backing an artist who sings in a scratchy moan and sounds as if he has a perpetual head cold.
But that's the Newman charm in action. Marie, a drunkard's confessional on the hurt and neglect he causes, remains as heartbreaking here as when Newman first recorded it in the '70s. Ditto for the album-closing I Think It's Going to Rain Today, a song of profound hurt and isolation. It is brought to lovely but unnerving life with Newman's mumbled singing and the orchestra's reserved pageantry playing equally key roles.
The solo segments are just as powerful. God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind), a guaranteed-to-offend requiem of the Almighty's disgust at man's inability to grasp spirituality, is one severe kiss-off of a song. Ditto for I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It), the hysterical requiem for rock stars who refuse to admit their commercial and artistic fortunes were spent long ago. All you hear on the latter is piano, a keenly instructed audience, which serves as a bizarre Greek chorus of sorts, and Newman's all-too-knowing vocals.
It all makes for a live retrospective of an American original who puts on brilliant display his dual means to musically celebrate and disturb.