Concert Review – An Evening with Randy Newman
Randy Newman brought his piano and his caustic wit to the Summer ZooTunes concert series at the Woodland Park Zoo. On a beautifully balmy Wednesday night, the mostly white-haired crowd gathered to witness the great songwriter alone on stage as he played songs from his multi-decade career. In recent years, Newman has famously been known for his prolific movie music. Those few in the crowd who attended for free because they were under twelve know him for his multitudinous Pixar projects. But with the exception of a fun rendition of “You’ve Got a Friend In Me,” Mr. Newman steered clear of the movie music and instead focused on his own wonderfully sarcastic songs.
He opened with a cheerful rendition of “It’s Money That I Love.” Comedic high notes like this were plentiful throughout the night. He tossed off probably his most famous tune, “Short People,” in the middle of the first half of the show. That tongue-in-cheek ode to racism is still as pointed today as it was when it first came out in the ’70s. Occasionally, he would stop to tell anecdotes about the writing of his music. He often compared himself to famous composers like Mahler and Tchaikovsky by stating that’s what he strove for, but he just wasn’t as talented. “It’s Lonely At The Top” sounded particularly good with him alone on the piano, as he was an unaccompanied solo act the entire night. Of course, a fun round of “I Love L.A.” was heard. Just before an intermission, he finished the first half of the show with a great rendition of probably his best song, “Political Science.” The nihilistic jokey imagery of those lyrics can’t help but make you laugh.
Mr. Newman also alternated between the comic and the soulful. “Birmingham” was spare and lovely. During the second half the show, the lyrics to “Louisiana” felt sad and immediate. He said he had originally written it about the 1927 flood, and references to Calvin Coolidge in the song hint at that origin. However, the tone and thought behind the song felt relevant to a post-Katrina landscape, as well. “Harps and Angels” sounded good. And his ability to mix the morbid with the comedic was perfectly felt during his singing of “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It).” He commented before the song that it’s kind of irritating that aging acts like himself are taking up valuable stage real estate and not letting newer acts get bookings. The song has him portraying himself as a has-been who is still holding on. He even acknowledges his critics in it by stating that he keeps writing the same song over and over.
Newman’s signature gravelly sound and tin pan alley piano noodling have been parodied over the years, but he really is amongst the best lyricists in the business. Much like Tom Waits, his husky, imperfect voice helps make his songs sincere. When he told the story of how he wrote the song “I Miss You,” about his first wife, while married to his second, you could hear a genuine sense of regret.
The sunny evening was finished by an encore which included “Sail Away,” another of his signature songs. Randy Newman is aging. So is his audience. There’s no getting around that, and he is well aware. But that hasn’t softened his hard tone. He still has a place and a talent to be appreciated. It was a fun way to spend a rare warm Seattle evening.