In the list of underappreciated songwriters, Randy Newman has gotta be right near the top. He’s probably more known for his pithy little Pixar soundtracks than anything (not too pithy though, he did win an Oscar), but his non-movie songs exhibit his real talent. Seeing him at in Northampton, we heard about topics from unrequited love to the failure of Marxism, stopping at a traveling one-man circus and the history of the European military along the way.
Dressed in a drab Hawaiian shirt and khakis, he looked like the aging frumpy tourist as he loped on stage at the Calvin Theatre. After taking a perfunctory bow, he headed to the piano, the night’s only instrument. He kicked it off with a typically ironic (we hope) song, It’s Money That I Love. Opening the set by singing about how he’s only here because he’s getting paid…oh Randy. Yellow Man, an early song complete with "an authentic Chinese intro for all you musicologists out there" led into the first serious song of the evening, Living Without You.
That somber note didn't last long, however, as he banged out the intro to his biggest hit, Short People. It's a funny little song, but gets old after you've heard it enough times. Apparently the same was true for him, as he hurried through it without much energy. That out of the way (and the crowd pleased with the first song that everyone knew), he went into another one of his big number, Birmingham. This was on my short lists of songs I was looking forward to and, even with the spare piano arrangement, it kept it's melodic core. Don't know what the city did to deserve that praise (which I don't think is ironic), but apparently it's the "greatest city in Alabam' ".
With the next song the show really got rolling. . Half the fun of the show was his hilarious song intros and anecdotes. This one was about how he was thinking near the end of the century about the inevitable lists of "Greatest Whatevers of the Last 100 Years" that would be coming. He knew they would because he "remembered it from the last time". He realized unless he wrote a truly epic song he wouldn't on the list. So out came The Girls Of My Life Part 1, about as epic as it sounds. "Was a girl, maybe five-foot-two, had the cutest little feet, made my heart go tweet tweet." Clearly an anthem for the ages.
A brief jaunt through a school's parents orientation supplemented with a look at Marxism in The World Isn't Fair led into my second favorite song of his, the painful I Miss You, "written for my first wife while I was married to my second." He performed it with the dignity it deserved and the audience responded in kind, with not a noise or movement anywhere. The stillest I've ever seen a crowd as they sat enraptured.
A couple songs later we got what had to have the biggest reaction of the evening, his newest release A Few Words In Defense of Our Country. This was originally published a few months back as an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, then as this video. Almost spoken word with piano background, the anti-regime lines got the expected cheers but the whole song was met with laughs and wild applause at the end. I don't want to give away the funny bits, so just watch the video. Humorous, but also dead accurate.
A few songs I didn't know later (and one I did, but have no idea why it was a hit covered by Tom Jones, You Can Leave Your Hat On), he announced that the next song would need audience participation. I crossed my fingers that it would be the one song I was hoping for the most, the song that comes pretty close to home describing many of my favorite artists, I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It). I guessed correctly, and it proved another highlight of the evening as he had the audience sub in for the record's backing singers. Some pretty elaborate instructions for a crowd of people who may not know the song, but he conducted it like a pro. Though the original is about as rocked-out as Randy gets, it seems to work just as well in the spare arrangement, the parts rearranged slightly so as to prevent the audience from screwing up the singing. He could have ended there and I would have been happy.
But it was less than half over. Next up was a song I recognized...I thought. Turns out Losing You is a new song, scheduled to be released on next year's record. If I thought I'd already heard it, it can't be very original, but I'll give it another chance when it comes out. Another shoulda-been hit Political Science closed out the first set on a high note, though the "let's drop the big one, see what happens" mentality is a little too relevant thirty years down the line.
He didn't open his first set with Mama Told Me (Not to Come), so I thought for sure that would start the second. Nope, I didn't even know the first song at all, one only released as a demo version on his box set. Laugh and Be Happy was fun though, and got a good reaction at the line "don't let the bastards grind you down". Next up was a song I like well enough on record, Last Night I Had a Dream, but it didn't do a lot for me live. I don't know if it was actually slower, but it seemed to plod along.
Saying the next song was about a murderer threw me off, cause I'd never thought if In Germany Before the War that way before. Is the man by the river supposed to be Hitler or something? Interesting. The next song, though was a real highlight for the intro alone, all about seeing the We Are the World video in the 80's and wondering why he wasn't among the list of A-List performers there. He decided that he needed to write a similarly do good, save the world sort of song and he started out..."I ran out on my children, I ran our on my wife." Throughout the song he listed the performers who'd be signing each part, leading to the chorus, sung to his son, which Sting and Bono would duet on: I Want You to Hurt Like I Do. A funny song in its own right, made so much better by the context.
The concert hit a bit of a stall at that point (though the fact that I didn't know many of the next half dozen songs didn't help), starting with Baltimore. That was another song I was looking forward to, but it loses a lot without the soaring strings of the original. Paired down it loses the crescendos and emotion. Skip ahead a few songs (including another biggie, You've Got a Friend In Me from Toy Story, which is about as insipid as it sounds) to another geographically-themed song, Louisiana (1927). Amazing how accurately he wrote about Hurricane Katrina in 1974. I guess the Calvin Coolidge parts a little different, but other than that it's pretty much the same.
Next up was another favorite, a song I'd been hoping he would play but completely forgotten about during the show itself. Another sing-a-long about an old guy too, this time about him propositioning his trophy wife/obsession to come back to him, Shame. The audience sang the "shame, shame, shame" parts as he responded with "I don't what you're talking about," "you're right, I've sunk pretty low" and finally, halfway through our chorus "shut up!" Not very often that a performer asks you to sing along and then yells at you when you do. He sure has some memorable characters.
I Love LA was the one song I'd been hoping for in the second set and it was mostly up to expectations. Another rocker, it doesn't work quite as well in the piano context as I'm Dead, but well enough. He seemed to realize this problem though, ending it early after two verses and a chorus. I would have liked to hear more, and if he'd gotten the audience to do the backing vocals again it could have been stronger (and lasted longer). The last song of the set was the beautiful I Think It's Going to Rain Today, a song that I can't imagine in any context other than solo piano. Very different lyrics from him too, about "scarecrows dressed in the latest styles with frozen smiles to chase love away". A complicated song, very sad despite lyrics about how "human kindness is overflowing." The way he sings it, that sounds like a bad thing.
I knew he'd play Sail Away, another song that is more popular than it deserves. I do love the line about being "as happy as the monkey in the monkey tree" though, so that alone made the performance worth it. Feels Like Home was a pretty bad choice to end the show with, a sappy song with plenty of "if you knew how much this moment means to me" stuff. Weak, Randy.
Otherwise, however, it was one of the best concerts I've seen in a while. He rarely tours - this was the last show of a half dozen this year - and hasn't released an album since '99, but if he ends up having a new one next year it should be worth checking out.
It's Money That I Love
Living Without You
The Girls in My Life Part 1
The World Isn't Fair
I Miss You
A Few Words In Defense of Our Country
Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear
Bad News From Home
You Can Leave Your Hat On
I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It)
Laugh and Be Happy
Last Night I Had a Dream
In Germany Before the War
I Want You to Hurt Like I Do
Real Emotional Girl
You've Got a Friend In Me
Jolly Coppers on Parade
I Love LA
I Think It's Going to Rain Today
Feels Like Home