A Rollicking Ride Through Randy Newman's Psyche

Friday, September 26, 2008

That crusty old wiseguy Randy Newman has been a Grammy/Oscar/Emmy-endorsed constant long enough to see himself parodied by people ("Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane, for example) whose satirical gifts are a shadow of his own. But anybody who thinks of Newman first as the guileless voice of a thousand (okay, five) Pixar soundtracks isn't wrong, necessarily, because as he demonstrated in his jaw-dropping concert at Strathmore on Wednesday night, Newman's irony-free songs (assaying every kind of love) can be at least as lacerating as the acerbic screeds ("Short People," the kill-'em-all ditty "Political Science") that got him tagged in the early 1970s as a divisive genius. A guy emotionally observant enough to write "I Miss You" -- a half-dozen other examples from the more than 30 songs he performed would work equally well -- has to keep his blade out most of the time to stay alive.

Newman's generous, funny spoken introductions to tunes from every era of his four-decade career were a sign that despite discreetly battling a cold, the maestro, performing alone at the piano, felt free to be himself, which is to say all of his selves. They're all in fine form on his new "Harps and Angels" album, which he performed almost in its entirety, without making a big deal about it. "Korean Parents" is a novel solution for adolescent slackerdom, while "Feels Like Home" would fit well enough into one of those cuddly Pixar films that you'd never guess Newman wrote it for his version of "Faust."

One advantage of having as pulpy a voice -- and as resigned a sensibility -- as Newman does is that aging doesn't hurt you. Which is how a 64-year-old can pull off a tune like "I'm Dead but I Don't Know It," fretting over pop stars' increasing (and increasingly ill-advised) longevity. Among tough competition, it was the show's single most uproarious performance, and thank God for it, because otherwise Newman's tales of collapsed hearts and rotting empires would have been too much to take.

-- Chris Klimek

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