Saturday, March 6
Better Than: James Franco, Anne Hathaway, and the whole lot.
There was a seven-year-old boy at the Randy Newman concert. He sat in Row O, between his parents. It made sense, I thought. Randy Newman, official composer for the Pixar films and a heckuva nice guy, should appeal to kids. He writes deceptively simple songs and is the sort of avuncular character who’s never better than when spinning a yarn. Uncle Randy, 67 and still cracking wise. Only, the Boy in Row O was not amused.
Newman, fresh off his second Oscar win and dressed in typically unfussy blue blazer, grey tee, and black slacks, sat alone in front of a black Steinway & Sons at Town Hall and played more than 30 songs, spanning nearly 45 years, for an interesting collection of people: older NPR-y couples, tourists, Pixar-ites, and a sprinkling of bookish, thirtysomething, tweedish men. Also, that boy. It’s understandable why this kid was in the building. To the public at large, Newman is the composer of 23 film scores — nominated 20 times — and the man behind songs like “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” the sweet, harmless theme from Toy Story. These are the things that get the writers of Family Guy to do things like this. But this isn’t really the essential truth about Newman.
The songs he played Saturday night — at least one from each of his 10 albums of original material — were as relevant and mordantly funny and wrenching as they’ve ever been. And Newman, who can sometimes sound like he’s singing with a jarful of Marshmallow Fluff in his mouth, was in good voice all night, strong and tough at times, weary and appropriately broken at others. He began with “It’s Money That I Love,” which sounds far better stripped of its late-’70s rock pomp, transformed into the spindly Ray Charles knockoff it always was. At the song’s conclusion, he quipped, “Always like to start with a couple spirituals.” This is Newman’s bag: jokes, jokes, jokes, heartsick ballad, more jokes. There are few artists better at between-song banter. Before the crushing “I Miss You” from 1998’s Bad Love: “This is a song I wrote for my first wife while married to my second.” Before “The Great Nations of Europe”: “This is a song where I’ll try to sum up the history of Western Civilization in two minutes and 48 seconds.” And after “Laugh and Be Happy,” from his 2006 album Harps & Angels: “It’s too bad Shirley Temple’s not alive to get us out of this Depression.” It’s hard to know how scripted some of this chatter is, but Newman is effortlessly funny and arch. You’d just as soon chuckle as roll your eyes as write it all down.
He’s a real old-fashioned entertainer, too, from a long line of musicians and composers, but none of this meant anything to the Boy In Row O, who sat holding a Nintendo DS with both hands, tapping away and murdering what looked like velociraptors. Occasionally his father would nudge him, indicating that the Boy ought to lower his arms so the glow from his DS would not distract ticket-buyers and amiable reporters. Watching his arms slowly rise into the dark, above his shoulders, reflexively, was like some maddening molecular version of the drinking bird. He hardly seemed to know there was a concert happening, bobbing and tapping like that.
Newman closed the first half of his set- — after exactly 15 songs and one hour — with “Political Science,” the brilliantly funny song from 1972’s so-good-just-buy-it-now Sail Away, which got the best reaction of the night. To explain the intermission, which lasted a hearty 25 minutes, he dryly noted, “Do one more, take a break, I’ll go shoot up.” The show’s second half was not unlike the first — Newman is not afraid to play “the hits,” from “Short People” to Public Radio interstitial favorite “Dixie Flyer” to, you betcha, a perfunctory rendition of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” But before that one, he told his Oscar stories. “Natalie Portman, what they’re saying about her is true, she’s gained a lot of weight,” he cracked. He then proceeded to pass along an off-color joke about sitting next to Sharon Stone at the ceremony, and then a bit about his relationship with Pixar. In recalling the re-recording of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” for Toy Story 2 with Robert Goulet, he mentioned that Goulet attempted to insert the word “baby” into the song’s chorus, and also described Goulet as looking like a Pekingese. So that was great. That Newman does this sort of thing before and after playing a two-hankie weeper like “Living Without You,” is a real feat of flexibility — few songwriters are capable of drifting between cynicism and sentiment with such grace.
Newman also performed “Rednecks,” one of his best-known songs and one that remains strangely edgy. It’s told from the perspective of an angry Southerner watching segregationist Lester Maddox on Dick Cavett’s talk show. “Rednecks” was controversial when it was released mostly because Newman uses the word “niggers” — “miserably bad language,” as he put it Saturday night — in the song’s otherwise buoyant Dixieland chorus. Newman is always writing from the perspective of fools, racists, perverts, murderers, fascists, and other unsympathetic men: “An insensitivity that I count on the audience to pick up on” is how he described it before “Better Off Dead.” Still, when he leaned into the offending word during “Rednecks,” there was a dark chill in the crowd. The best of Newman’s songs are still cold and sharply crafted. Likewise “Louisiana 1927,” about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which is now a sort of de facto Hurricane Katrina anthem with its mournful reprise: “They’re trying to wash us away.”
Newman closed with “I Love L.A.,” his goofball regional smash that hits a lot harder on those brisk NYC nights, and “Sail Away,” a song that Robert Christgau described thusly: “In which a slave trader becomes the first advertising man.” He returned for a brief encore that included “Lonely at the Top,” the original #humblebrag, written for and roundly rejected by Frank Sinatra. Then he left. When the lights came up, the Boy In Row O didn’t even raise his head from his DS.
Critical Bias: I’m fairly certain Randy Newman is the greatest living songwriter not named something that rhymes with Smob Smylan. Also, he played 32 songs, but I’d have killed to hear “Maybe I’m Doing It Wrong” or “Last Night I Had a Dream.”
Overheard: From the Boy in Row O, naturally: “I liked the music, but it was kinda boring watching. He was mumbling the whole time.” No shit, kid!
Random Notebook Dump: People love to introduce themselves to you when you’re holding a notebook.
“It’s Money That I Love”
“Mama Told Me Not To Come”
“Living Without You”
“Bad News From Home”
“The Girls In My Life”
“The World Isn’t Fair”
“I Miss You”
“Leave Your Hat On”
“The Great Nations of Europe”
“I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It)”
“Laugh and Be Happy”
“Love Story (You and Me)”
“In Germany Before The War”
“You’ve Got A Friend In Me”
“Harps & Angels”
“I Love LA”
“Lonely At The Top”