Randy Newman's special delivery
by Seth Rogovoy
(TROY, N.Y., October 2, 2003) – Randy Newman will probably always be best known for his novelty hit, “Short People,” which is too bad, because his overall body of work rivals that of any pop songwriter of the 20th century, as he showed in his terrific solo concert at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall on Wednesday night.
It’s all the more to the credit of the singer-pianist that even when he played a jaunty “Short People” -- which heaps scorn on the vertically challenged as a way of simultaneously poking fun at bigotry and feel-good universalism (“Short people are just the same as you and I/All men are brothers until the day they die”) – all these years later, the song is still riotously funny and provokes paroxysms of laughter.
It’s tempting to say it’s all in the delivery, but it’s not. The delivery – Newman’s patented, froglike, grumpy croak, the voice of the eternal misanthrope -- is about half of it. The other half is his spectacular, pitch-perfect songwriting, where lyrics and music intersect to create poetry of tremendous wit and pathos.
It’s also to Newman’s credit that his material, seemingly of a bygone era (mostly the 1970s, but kept alive since then through sporadic album releases -- about two per decade -- and a thriving career writing for movies), emerged as timeless and even timely, such as “Political Science,” a 30-year-old satirical protest song against American hegemony that has never rung truer than today (“They all hate us anyhow/So let’s drop the big one now”), that Newman chose to close the first half of his grippingly well-paced show.
Dressed modestly in a light, short-sleeved button-down shirt and black trousers, Newman accompanied himself skillfully on the hall’s Steinway grand piano. The timelessness of his material emerged through his original music and playing, a pastiche of styles variously drawing upon ragtime, Fats Waller, Central European parlor tunes, Stephen Foster, marches, New Orleans, blues, patriotic songs, and Tin Pan Alley. Mix in a little Shostakovich and Schubert, and somehow Newman came up with a unique style that can be dressed up as rock-era pop, but when stripped down to basics, as it was here, speaks directly and eloquently with a modern attitude bred of the rock era but smartly keeping its distance.
Newman’s songs come in two basic styles, manic and depressive, but they are so packed with twists, surprises, and intelligence that the variations are endlessly intriguing. He wisely emphasized his earliest work, probably his best, offering renditions of “Last Night I Had a Dream,” “Lonely at the Top” and “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” that sounded as fresh and meaningful as they did on his live album in 1971. He wasn’t above turning his satirical wit on himself, saying “Take it” before launching into an instrumental break on “Birmingham,” one of his classics featuring narrators who over the course of the song slowly reveal themselves to be unreliable – in this case, a civic booster who turns out to be a misanthrope.
Misanthropes abound in Newman’s work, and his sardonic phrasing and limited voice with its perpetual stuffy-nose sound (he told of his father once saying after he heard him sing, “What’s the matter, you got a cold?) perfectly suited ballads like “Marie,” which started as a beautiful love song until the clichés began piling up (“You’re a flower, you’re a river, you’re a rainbow”) and the singer is revealed to be a pathological liar.
Newman offered amusing commentary about his work. “When I wrote this as a kid I thought it was a joke, but as I get older I take it a lot more seriously,” he said by way of introducing the erotically perverse “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” He incorporated the audience into “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It),” one of five songs he played from 1999’s Bad Love -- songs that tread dangerously close to “I’m Dead”’s admonition to pop stars of his era who don’t know when to quit: “Each record that I make is like a record that I made/Just not as good.”
But the old favorites kept coming: “Baltimore,” “Real Emotional Girl,” “Louisiana 1927,” “Rednecks,” and “Sail Away,” the improbable sales pitch of a slave trader coaxing Africans aboard his ship for an America where they’ll “all be Americans…happy as a monkey in a monkey tree.”
Only Randy Newman could come up with a line like that. And only someone with his genius could get away with it.
[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on October 3, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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