America's most unforgiving musical satirist performs many of his classic songs in this solo European show

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Cerebral Healing

Randy Newman

KONINGIN ELISABETHZAAL, ANTWERP, BELGIUM

Sunday February 8, 2004

Randy Newman has elected to begin his 2004 solo tour of Europe on a Sunday night in Belgium, a country where his wry but devastating critiques and toe-tapping ditties have regularly topped the charts.

As they sup their beer and wait for the curtain call, Randy’s flatland fanatics are deathly quiet, the atmosphere intensely reverential. When Randy eventually ambles on stage to the waiting grand piano, it’s with the sheepish relish of Homer Simpson approaching the neighbourhood barbecue. Randy is silver-haired and wearing a shirt that looks like it was once loose-fitting but now hugs his bulky frame. Hunched at the keys, he brings forth the creeping dread and icy disdain of “Last Night I Had A Dream”, and it seems he’s fit to burst out of the song, which is seething in its angry soul-deep confessional.

The personal gives way to the political with “Birmingham”?a song that pinpoints Newman’s audacious insight. His unassuming genius, coupled with pointed and poignant observations, allows him to become a devil’s advocate for a Deep South of the mind. There, and in deathless marvels like “Sail Away” And “Rednecks”, his place in the great pantheon of American song is that of Bob Dylan’s evil twin?finding horror at every turn.

He fills the hall with a grisly cast?pre-war German child murderers, scheming slave traders, corrupt politicians and wretched old men drooling over young flesh (the aged Randy excels in uncomfortably-close-to-home scenarios). “The Great Nations Of Europe” (“my attempt to condense the last 400 years of European history into a two-minute 48-second pop song,” he explains) elicits a rapturous response. “Thank you. As you are an imperialist nation yourself, I take that as a compliment,” he smirks. In Randy Land, no one is innocent?we all have to help carry the can.

“Marie” and “Real Emotional Girl” show he has as fine a grasp on elusive feelings as he has on the venal hypocrisy and boorishness of nation states. Then the crowd are invited to sing response choruses of “Shame shame shame” and “He’s dead” at the appropriate points. They do so with such fearsome gusto that he adds a note of caution: “Maybe a little too much feeling in that last one.”

Although the movie commissions still pile up, there has been no original Newman album since the underrated Bad Love in 1999. Backstage after the show, he’s brought out for a meet and greet. Looking like a condemned man who’s just been introduced to his executioner, he says, as much to himself as to anyone listening, “I have to write some new songs, that’s what I have to do”.

If they are to match the past glories he has just brought to life, the big man must know he has a mighty mountain to climb.