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.