Saturday, April 16, 2011

Last Night We Saw Randy Newman

I grew up listening to Randy Newman play his wicked songs, from "Sail Away," to "Rednecks," to "Political Science." Most of his stuff never came within hailing distance of the top forty, though "Short People" made it to #2, back in the disco days, kept out of the #1 slot by the BeeGees.

When I haul out my guitar to fool around, I play four of his songs regularly enough so I don't forget the chords and words.

Aside from his dozen albums,  and a bunch of theatrical scores, he's scored thirty movies, TV shows, been nominated for the Oscar a dozen times and won it twice for Best Song.

If you have kids, you've heard him: Toy Story's "You've Got a Friend in Me." 

If you watched Monk on the tube, that was Randy doing "It's a Jungle Out There."

My wife and I saw Newman a few years ago in Portland, at the Schnitz, and last night was at the Aladdin. The Schnitz is upscale and uptown; the Aladdin is funky and on the east side, a smaller venue. Six hundred seats, sold out, and we were orchestra-center a dozen rows back, perfect place.

He started with "Mama Told Me Not to Come," and ran through a score of his songs. Did a fifteen-minute intermission in the middle of the set, and then two two-song encores.

The audience, mostly gray-tops, loved him. We applauded, stamped our feet, whistled and hollered, and he allowed as how Portland was one of his favorite venues because of that. 

His music veered from funny to sad to spooky–he does a song about a murderer in Germany before the war–and one about a dream he had. 

As much fun as the music is his patter. He sounds like somebody telling a story in your front room to some friends gathered around the piano, and he is in turns hilarious and thoughtful.

When he finished singing "Short People," he said he be proud to have that one associated with his name when they wrote his obituary: "Winner of two honorary Oscars and writer of "Short People."

When he did "Political Science," which is about America's relationship the rest of the world, and which has in it the lyric, "They don't respect us, so let's surprise 'em, we'll drop the Big One and pulverize 'em," the opening line is "No one likes us, I don't know why/" he leaned toward the audience and gave us an aside, "Hard to say that second part of the line now."

The audience roared. 

When he set up "Rednecks," he talked about Lester Maddox, the racist governor of Georgia in the early sixties. He said "The man was a bad segregationist–they're much better at it now." 

We howled at that one. 

A lot of his stuff is autobiographical, and he talks about his ex-wife and current one, kids and grandkids, and some of the revelations are painful–he reaches deep to come up with his lyrics. Does a nasty blues progression, and some nice stride piano now and then.

If you get a chance to see him, go. The man is a genius, and if you are paying attention, you'll find some of the best satire and irony ever put into music. 

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