Having played at Northampton's Calvin Theater only a year before (I was there), Randy Newman didn’t quite have the panache to pack it a second time. For those who did dot the theater’s seats, however, Newman performed his acidly satirical songs as if for the first time there or anywhere, peppering tales of racists, perverts, and murderers with witty quips and rambling anecdotes.
Those who know Newman only from his Disney/Pixar work such as “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” and the Oscar-winning “If I Didn’t Have You” miss the truly different aspects of his songs. Much is made of his use of the “unreliable narrator,” singing from the perspective of generally unlikeable characters. When he sings about “keeping the niggers down” or that “short people got no reason to live,” few groups rise up to protest the most bigoted songwriter of our time. Instead, his biting satires poke holes in the very arguments he’s making, pointing out the fallacies in such outdated positions as “Let’s drop the big one, see what happens.”
Though he sometimes performs with an orchestra, as when I saw him in Milwaukee last March, tonight a lone piano sat onstage. Though the Steinway has probably been used for Mozart concertos and Beethoven sonatas before, for two hours from the moment Newman scuttled over to it it banged out acidly sarcastic pop tunes from throughout Newman’s career. His better-known songs were all in attendance, including the ones quoted above ("Rednecks," "Short People," and "Political Science") and ones that have been big hits for others ("You Can Leave Your Hat On" and "Marie"). With ten studio albums to pick from, however, he chose his cuts carefully, sprinkling in lesser-known gems like "It’s Money That I Love" (“They say that money can’t buy love in this world / But it’ll get you half a pound of cocaine and a sixteen-year old girl”) and "God’s Song" (“I burn down your cities – how blind you must be / I take from you your children and you say, ‘How blessed are we!’ / You all must be crazy to put your faith into me / That’s why I love mankind”). It’s not every day you have God talking shit to humanity.
If the set list had a leaning, however, it was to songs off his new album Harps and Angels, his first in nine years. Playing eight out of the ten tracks, Newman touched on themes closer to home including, on songs like "Potholes," actually singing from his own perspective to tell an embarrassing Little League story. Most notable about the new songs were how much better they sounded than the overblown album version. "Korean Parents," chintzy on the album with a novelty Oriental orchestra, worked far better with just the piano, keeping its bouncy Asian rhythms but pushing the lyrics to the fore. Though I’ve heard the original many times, I was always too distracted by the production to realize how funny it is. “Who’s at the head of every class? / You really think they’re smarter than you are? / They just work their asses off – their parents make them do it.” Likewise, New York Times hit “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” fares better in its original youtube arrangement, just Randy and the ivories, instead of the string-heavy power ballad he tries to make it on the album.
If the songs were funny, the between-song banter got the biggest laughs. No matter how serious the song that followed, there was always time for Newman to throw in an irreverent quip about it. He introduced “I Miss You” as “a song I wrote for my first wife while married to my second,” and went on a whole routine about how “I Want You to Hurt Like I Do” was his “We Are the World” that left the audience in stitches (“Josh Groban would come in here…or maybe Michael Jackson himself,” and later “Everybody holds hands and starts swaying.”) Or he reversed the process, calling the dirty old man jingle “You Can Leave Your Hat On” “the saddest song I ever wrote.”
A showman to the end, Randy Newman needs to theatrics or gimmicks to bring across his short slices of life in concert. Though he played thirty-four tunes, his acerbic wit and old-man charm kept the small, older crowd riveted through gems new and old. If his song “I Want Everyone to Like Me” is sincere, he needn’t worry.
It’s Money That I Love
My Life Is Good
The World Isn’t Fair
I Miss You
Laugh and Be Happy
A Few Words in Defense of Our Country
You Can Leave Your Hat On
I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It)
Last Night I Had a Dream
Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)
In Germany Before the War
You’ve Got a Friend
Living Without You
I Want You to Hurt Like I Do
A Piece of the Pie
Harps and Angels
God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)
I Love L.A.
I Think It’s Going to Rain Today
I Want Everyone to Like Me
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