Tag Archives: Jackson Browne

Newman, Keeping Things Randy at the Strathmore

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 mainly as the guileless voice that soundtracked a thousand (okay, five) Pixar cartoons isn’t wrong, necessarily – because as his jaw-dropping concert at Strathmore demonstrated on Wednesday night, Newman’s irony-free love 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 tagged him in the early 1970s as a divisive genius (or “genius”). A guy emotionally observant enough to write “I Miss You” – a half-dozen other examples from the more than 30 songs Newman 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, alone at the piano, felt free to be himself, which is to say all of his selves: The court jester, the avuncular voice of comfort, the heartbreak victim who knows he had it coming. They’re all present and in fine form on his new Harps and Angels album, which he folded into his two hour-plus sets almost in its entirety without making a big deal about it. (We’re looking at you, Jackson Browne. And so is Randy, but more on that in a minute.) “Korean Parents,” proposing a novel solution for adolescent slackerdom, came first among the new stuff, while “Feels Like Home” would fit well enough into one of those cuddly Pixar films that you’d never guess Newman wrote it for a version of Faust.

One advantage of having as pulpy a voice and as resigned a sensibility as Newman does is aging doesn’t hurt you. Which is how a 64-year-old can pull a tune like “I’m Dead but I Don’t Know It,” fretting over rock stars’ increasing (increasingly ill-advised) longevity, and throw in a shot at Sir Paul McCartney for good measure. He wrote that one when he was “only” in his mid-50s; more recently, in the song “Piece of the Pie,” he’s taken to picking on poor old Jackson Browne for – well, it isn’t quite clear. But it sure is funny.

Among tough competition, “I’m Dead” was show’s single most uproarious performance, and thank God for it, because otherwise Newman’s tales of collapsed hearts and rotting empires – sung soulfully even as the President was on TV warning of the economic End Times — would have been too damn much to take.

Newman has never exempted himself from his withering jeremiads; he’s sold songs to commercials just like John Mellencamp, who gets called out in “A Piece of the Pie,” too. He’s repeatedly bitten the hand that feeds him and usually been rewarded with more chow.

A shorter version of this review appears in today’s Paper of Record.

To New or Not to New?

On their 1992 Zoo TV Tour, U2 opened with six-to-eight songs in a row from their then-most-recent album, Achtung Baby, and the crowd was with them. But they didn’t have the confidence to repeat this approach on the 1997 PopMart Tour — and of course, the POP album was far less popular than Achtung, especially in the U.S.

Ace Paper of Record music critic J. Freedom du Lac pre-viewed his re-view of Jackson Browne’s Warner Theatre concet with this blog post, chiding Brown for apologizing for his new material.

Since you asked, here’s my take:

If you’re going to apologize for playing your new stuff, you forfeit the right to refer to yourself as an artist, I think. Based on JFdL’s review (I wasn’t at the show), I’d give Browne a pass for apologizing once on account of the album not having been released yet. It sounds like he was apologizing repeatedly, though, which is just weak.

But bellowing out song requests is almost always obnoxious. Sure, there are exceptions — like when the performer asks, “So what do you guys want to hear?” But few artists work that way, and no artist worth listing to works that way all the time, and the idea that a performer just walked out there without having made up a setlist that expresses whatever it is they want to express is borderline insulting. More irritating still is when the request-shouters call for obvious warhorses — like “Running on Empty” or “The Pretender” — that everybody knows with 90 percent certainty they’re going to hear anyway! If you’re only interested in the half-dozen or so most familiar tunes in the artist’s catalogue, why bother attending a concert? Make a playlist, save yourself an evening and $150 or so, and spare the members of the audience who actually know how to show their appreciation in a respectful way the headache of having to deal with you all night.

A lot of this depends on what kind of artist you’re dealing with. When U2 or Bruce Springsteen tour a new album, they typically play half to three-quarters of the new material at least for the first leg or first couple of months. Radiohead are playing In Rainbows in its entirety and then some, including bonus tracks that (I think) are only included on the pricey deluxe editions of the album. R.E.M. are playing most of their new album this year, but then again, the album is less than 35 minutes long, leaving plenty of room in the set for crowd-pleasers and rarities alike. With an act like Tom Petty or the Rolling Stones, you’ll hear maybe two or three of the new songs, tops. But when Aimee Mann played the Birchmere last February to preview songs from Smilers several months (not one week) before the album was on sale, she didn’t apologize for playing the new stuff. She believed in the songs, and she sold them. Period.

I also believe a lot of artists are more willing to risk playing a preponderance of new stuff in a small venue than they are in a large one. (The Warner would be about mid-size, I guess.)