By Joel Francis
The setup couldn’t have been simpler – a grand piano, bench, monitor, couple of microphones, a small rug. But add Randy Newman to that list and the payoff couldn’t have been greater Saturday night.
Strolling casually onstage at 8 p.m. sharp, Newman rolled into “It’s the Money That I Love.” Throughout the next two and a half hours (counting a 20 minute intermission), he walked through nearly three dozen album tracks and hits like “You’ve Got A Friend In Me,” “I Love L.A.” and “Short People” for a nearly sold-out Folly Theater crowd.
He may have been alone onstage, but Newman had a theater of fervent supporters. The audience of NPR-listening baby boomers was pin-drop quiet on the moodier numbers and clapping and laughing on the upbeat songs. When Newman finally enlisted their help on the chorus of “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It)” the enthusiastic response was startling. “You sound like a Queen record,” he joked.
Newman is as good at directing a crowd as he is an orchestra. He shifted effortlessly from the laugh-out-loud satire of “Korean Parents” to the melancholy “I Miss You” – a love song “for my first wife while I was married to my second one,” Newman said – to the upbeat children’s song “Simon Smith.”
Some of the evening’s best lines came between songs. “The World Isn’t Fair” was prefaced by a story about his son’s progressive pre-school where they would “sit around on cushions and come home with lice every couple weeks” He led into “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It),” a screed about rock stars who don’t know when to retire, by explaining “no one is applauding at home” and “no one is going to tell Paul his best work was with Wings.”
Every song was a highlight, but several numbers stood apart. “Dixie Flyer,” a song about Newman’s emigration from the Bayou State to Los Angeles, segued into “Louisiana 1927,” a historical recount of the great Mississippi flood. Two songs named after cities, “Birmingham” and “Baltimore,” were powerful paeans to the working class in decaying towns.
Although the generous setlist encompassed Newman’s entire catalog, it tipped toward his last two releases. All but one song from this year’s wonderful “Harps and Angels” was performed. That album provided one of the better political songs in recent memory, “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country.”
Newman let his songs do his stumping for him. Several of the numbers he wrote more than 30 years ago, like the bomb-happy “Political Science” and the plea “Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)” sadly have a contemporary relevance.
Today, Newman is better known for his sweeping film scores and Pixar songs than stinging lyrics and clever songwriting. He did OK with only 88 keys to replicate his orchestrations. His more complicated songs, like “A Piece of the Pie” and “Harps and Angels” survived the transition more or less intact. “Love Song (You and Me)” actually sounded better stripped down.
Like many of his generation’s best songwriters – Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Tom Waits come to mind – Newman’s froggy voice is an acquired taste that is easily parodied. Saturday’s magical immersion in Newman’s world of five centuries of European history in three minutes (“The Great Nations of Europe”), senior forgetfulness (“Potholes”) and erotic humor (“You Can Leave Your Hat On”) was more than enough to convert the few who carried any reservations into the theater and leave the devoted a performance to cherish.
Setlist: It’s the Money That I Love/My Life Is Good/Marie/Short People/Birmingham/Bad News From Home/The World Isn’t Fair/Korean Parents/I Miss You/Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear/A Few Words in Defense of Our Country/Laugh and Be Happy/Losing You/You Can Leave Your Hat On/I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It)/Political Science/<intermission>/Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)/The Great Nations of Europe/Potholes/In Germany Before the War/Baltimore/Only A Girl/Love Story (You and Me)/Real Emotional Girl/You’ve Got a Friend in Me/Harps and Angels/Dixie Flyer/Louisiana 1927/Guilty/I Love L.A./God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)/A Piece of the Pie/I Think It’s Going to Rain Today/<encores>/It’s Lonely at the Top/Feels Like Home
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