A Friday night drive to Toronto can be a hassle, but going to Hugh's room isn't so bad. You don't have to go all the way in to the city. Lakeshore to Parkside, up to Bloor, along Bloor to Dundas, and free parking at the grocery store. FREE PARKING in TORONTO! WHEW! It's like winning a lottery.
People at home said, "Why not support Hamilton shows? Larry Carlton is playing at Mohawk and Jean-Paul deRoover is at the Pearl." Well...I like Randy Newman I guess.
I do like Randy Newman. While I don't always agree with the stance he takes in his songs, they are so witty and funny, and sharp that they're irresistable to someone who enjoys lyrics. And the music is always so classic. Wonderful chord progressions, even on the transitions, and the mixture of rock band rhythms with Newman's orchestral arrangements separates him from the rest of the pack. He's not just another singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar (not that there's anything wrong with that).
This time we had a table on the middle level, good view of the stage, but not too close to the stairs. The food was better, and although we were the first to order and last to eat (even after ordering my steak rare) we had a decent dining experience. But this time it was all about the music.
A Man Called Wrycraft organizes four or five of these shows a year, inviting a hand picked collection of Canadian musicians to pay tribute to a songwriter (or band) that he admires. We missed the Carole King show, but caught the Beatles and Tom Waits Tributes. Randy Newman has nearly fifty years of songs to choose from, but people mainly looked to the tremendous series of records he released in the 70s for their choices. Of course the same is true for Randy himself. His latest release Live in London is heavily weighted with older songs.
The show began on time at 8:30 as Michael Wrycraft took the stage to introduce the evening and the first performer. Lori Cullen's latest CD features songs 'about rain' by some of the world's greatest songwriters, Randy Newman among them. She led off with "Every Time It Rains" (from Newman's 1999 Bad Love album) accompanied by Dave Matheson on piano. Lori has a beautiful voice, but seemed a bit tentative. Perhaps she simply didn't like being up first. Her performance of "I Think It's Going To Rain Today" was classic and compares with any previous version. Beautiful.
Bassist George Koller followed with a stunning stand-up bass solo to introduce the gorgeous but disturbing "Marie". Koller's plain voice was perfect for this song of a redneck's love for his wife. The unspoken potential for abuse behind the romance was palpable. Koller also did a lovely rendition of "Dayton, Ohio, 1903".
Michael Johnston took the stage to talk about Newman's third album, 1971's Live. This was originally recorded as a promo for radio to introduce Newman to broadcasters, but Warners released it in a cover that looked for all the world like a bootleg. It was, for many of us, our first taste of Randy Newman. Johnston read a note from iTunes which described the record in not very complimentary terms. He then proceeded to lay what they described as the "unremarkable 'Tickle Me'". It was...remarkable. Michael also did "Short People" because, he said, he realized that at home...he was surrounded by them!
Then it was up to Tim Posgate and his new bluegrass (or newgrass) band the Sorry Cousins who displayed string band proficiency on a couple of numbers including "My Old Kentucky Home". After the smoke cleared from this picking session it was time for a break.
The break allowed folks to buy CDs from all the performers, or Wrycraft's poster for the event and have it signed by one and all.
Treasa Levasseur took the stage and dedicated her first song to Danka behind the bar. "You've Got a Friend in Me" she sang, accompanying herself on the piano, her bluesy voice almost too big for the room. She also covered Newman's poke at the ccreator of the universe..."God's Song" or "That's Why I Love Mankind". Randy better duck if he sees Yahweh coming!
Michael Jerome Browne made the drive from Montreal to do this show, and was a standout singing "Mama Told Me Not To Come" and "Louisiana 1927". His 12 string guitar playing was superb, capturing all of Newman's piano transitions and runs. I watched Wrycraft's face during this set...he was transported. Of course he is always transported. The thing about A Man Called W's tributes is that he just outright loves the music and he always chooses the right artists.
Dave Matheson did a splendid version of "Yellow Man" with all the pseudo-chinese notes that Newman threw in to make it "authentic" and followed that with a beautiful rendition of one of Randy's creepiest songs. "In Germany Before The War" tells the story of a shopkeeper who kills a young girl...influenced by the film M. My wife asked "doesn't Randy Newman write any up-beat songs?" Not many come to think of it!
Jory Nash closed out the night with one of my favourites, dedicated to all "you pyromaniac farmers out there." That's right..."Let's Burn Down the Cornfield." And with that the whole cast was called on stage to perform "Sail Away". This song Newman wrote for a kind of rock opera that was to have featured all the great singer-songwriters of the day. As Randy tells it, "Neil was there, James was there, Elton...everybody." The project came to naught, but this slaver's invitation to "climb aboard little wog sail away with me..." has had a long life and is one of his most evocative songs. The melody and chorus are so singable, that you don't even think about what you're singing about. That is one of the hallmarks of Newman's songwriting, that the singer becomes the person in the song. The redneck who beats his wife, and keeps the n****r down, the child killer, the racist, the rock star, the cowboy. Nobody writes songs like Randy Newman. But on Friday night at Hugh's Room...everybody sang 'em...just right!