Concert Review: Paul Williams makes dreams come true

Paul Williams talks to the audience at University Synagogue in Irvine on Thursday during the Paul Williams Song Festival. (Scott Smeltzer, Daily Pilot)

Van Morrison, the famously moody singer-songwriter, once grew annoyed with an interviewer’s questions about his craft.

“Nobody asks a bricklayer about laying bricks,” he protested. “Why ask me about writing songs? There’s no difference.”

Perhaps there are some tunesmiths whose creative process is no more captivating than manual labor. If the Paul Williams Song Festival on Thursday night at University Synagogue in Irvine was any indication, though, the man who has cranked out hits for Barbra Streisand, Three Dog Night, Tiny Tim and others isn’t among them.

It’s not the typical bricklayer, for example, who writes a TV commercial jingle for a bank that turns into a smash hit for the Carpenters; who contributes material for the gangster musical “Bugsy Malone,” which features an all-child cast; or who, as Williams recently noted while accepting a Grammy, gets a call from a pair of “robots” (actually, the mask-wearing French duo Daft Punk) to help create an album.

The overall impression of the two-hour show, hosted by the Center for Spiritual Living Newport-Mesa, was of an artist who feels blessed and somewhat baffled by the success life has bestowed on him. That success may arise in part from talent and in part from industry connections, but it may also be a cosmic response to positive thinking — a belief that Williams, a longtime member of the center’s congregation, expressed throughout the evening.

“If I have one message for the rest of the universe, it’s that anything is possible,” he said at one point. “What we dwell on, we create.”

Fitting for a man more famous as a songwriter than a singer, Williams ceded the stage to other performers for most of the night, giving just a pair of renditions at the end. Most of the way, he served as master of ceremonies, introducing the tunes that more than a dozen vocalists presented and telling the stories behind their creation.

Some songwriters — Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell — pursue more or less linear careers, packaging their work in album-length statements and moving through identifiable creative phases. Williams, whose work as a songwriter-for-hire has run the gamut from crafting Muppet tunes to contributing the theme song for TV’s “The Love Boat,” may not get the same amount of love from critics, but he may also have better, well, brick-laying tales than any of the above people.

For example, here was Williams reminiscing about his Muppet days: “Writing for Jim Henson was as good as it got. I mean, it doesn’t get any better than having the alarm go off in the morning, and you reach over and go, ‘Ah, damn it,’ and then you go, ‘Wait a minute, I’m gonna work with Kermit today.’”

Given the eclectic nature of Williams’ output, the variety-show format of the evening worked perfectly, ranging from stark solo-acoustic to choral harmonies to synthesized strings. From the opening number, a vivacious take on Three Dog Night’s “An Old Fashioned Love Song” by Mark Wood and Darby Walker, it was evident that the acoustic improvements at the synagogue, which the concert helped raise funds to pay for, were worth every dollar.

Bob Pope gamely camped his way through Tiny Tim’s “Fill Your Heart,” fist-pumping and all, while Kris Shelton delivered an aching reading of the Carpenters’ “Rainy Days and Mondays.” Williams dedicated the latter song to his hardworking mother, whose habit of cursing under her breath inspired the opening line “Talkin’ to myself and feelin’ old.”

The most revelatory rendition of the night came on Daft Punk’s “Touch,” performed by a seven-woman vocal ensemble who transformed the fragmented studio version into a warm, flowing suite. The repeated phrase toward the song’s end (“Hold on / if love is the answer, you’re home”) sounds otherworldly on the album track; here, the layered voices made it sound like a mantra, the kind of affirmative hook that might have graced “Hair” or another musical of the Woodstock generation.

When Williams finally took the vocal spotlight, he finished with an equally harmony-laden take on “The Rainbow Connection,” the Oscar-nominated song from 1979’s “The Muppet Movie.” A line of vocalists, with the songwriter in the middle, swayed back and forth and joined in the chorus: “Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection / the lovers, the dreamers and me.”

After two hours of sterling pop music, colored with spiritual overtones, that “dreamers” category might just have included everyone present.