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Concert Review: Randy Newman

By Alex Goodman

February 21, 2010 9:23 pm

About halfway through his two-hour set Friday night at Royce Hall, Randy Newman lost track of his own song. Granted it was one of the newer ones, “Laugh and Be Happy,” from his 2008 album “Harps and Angels,” but it was still his song, and it wasn’t the first mistake he’d made. When he regrouped, though, his audience, few of them students, applauded as warmly as they had all evening.

“I must have built up some good will over the years,” Newman said to the crowd.

Of course, that goes without saying ““ Newman has been one of pop music’s most beloved figures for four decades. Over the years, he’s written snarling social commentary, warped character studies and Disney soundtracks, but he’s done it all with the same level of disarming emotional honesty and compassion.

Even in the grandness of Royce Hall he felt close, onstage with just a piano and his froggy voice.

He sounded older, wearier than he used to, which is neither surprising nor really much of a problem.

Newman’s music has always been about its character, not its technical virtuosity, the antithesis of the sterile perfectionism of the American Idol era.

So the grittiness of age has suited his voice well, broken it down in a way that sounds right for songs as cynical and as organic as his can be.

But Newman is not exclusively a dark songwriter ““ the defining quality of his work is its emotional exactness, whether that emotion is joy or devastation. He fills his lyrics with the kinds of details and observations that make critics fawn over short story writers like John Cheever and Lorrie Moore. His style is so distinctive, and yet so transcendent of any single agenda that his set could include both “Rednecks,” a rather profane commentary on racism, and “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” an exceptionally endearing tune Newman wrote for “Toy Story.”

The first half of Newman’s set was the more energetic of the two, tending toward bouncier tunes, including “Short People,” the wittily subversive and quite popular hit from his 1977 album “Little Criminals.” Both halves drew from “Harps and Angels,” as was expected, but also from the great history of Newman’s career, back even to his self-titled debut album.

And, for what he claimed will be the last time, he played “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country,” his defiant response to the Bush administration, which he said publicly is rooted in too specific a historical context to remain relevant. As one of the few truly great protest songs of the 21st century, it will be missed.

All the while though, no matter what he was playing, Newman sounded as if he were simply making up the songs right there on the stage, just a man at a piano playing whatever struck him and telling stories along the way. There may not be another American songwriter today who is both so smart and so undeniably fun, and there is certainly not another voice like his.

It is a great shame that Newman is all but unknown to the younger generation, recognized almost exclusively within the context of “A Bug’s Life” and “The Princess and the Frog.” Yet there might still be hope, for in the corner of the upper balcony of Royce Hall Friday night sat Michael Cera, perhaps the unlikeliest of celebrities to appear at such a concert. May he profess his love for Randy Newman to hipster blogs everywhere, and awaken a new generation to one of the most profoundly moving voices in American pop music.

““ Alex Goodman

E-mail Goodman at [email protected]

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