Three Dog Night had a hit with their rocking version of “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” but Newman, by contrast, performed it with an air of wry resignation. His own recordings tend to avoid the charts, but 1977's “Short People” (from the album “Little Criminals”) went to Billboard’s No. 2, earning it the roar of recognition brought by its first few instrumental bars as Newman performed it in Troy. (“Sounds kind of vicious,” he said of one of the verses as he headed into the song’s bridge.)
Newman has synthesized the most fascinating aspects of American music into a voice original enough to be instantly recognizable, and I’m not talking about his singing voice (although that would qualify, too). Take the song “Birmingham.” It’s from his 1974 album “Good Old Boys,” a trip through the deep south that pulls no punches while portraying a number of local characters with surprising affection. It’s the song of a steel-mill worker as he praises his city, and the simplicity of its melody recalls Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home.” But there’s also a touch of ragtime (ragtime infuses many a Newman song) alongside the distinct harmonic voicings unique to Newman’s work.
He dipped back into the 19th century again with “Wandering Boy,” another song from “Dark Matter.” It was inspired by the temperance song “Where Is My Wandering Boy Tonight?” but tells a more contemporary story of loss and disappointment.
“In Germany before the War” shows another side of Newman’s style. It may be the most art song-ish of his catalogue as it strips a story of child murder to less than its essence – it’s up to the listener to fill in the worst of the details – and presents it over a slow, plaintive melody that shifts between major and minor. It could have come from Schubert’s “Winterreise,” were the narrator of that song cycle not so deeply self-involved.
Classical influences show up in most unlikely places. I heard Brahms lurking in the depths of “Laugh and Be Happy,” an otherwise bouncy number with a ragtime feel and a zinger of a take on immigration. (“Any bandwagon that goes by,” said Newman, “I get on.”) That’s from 2008's “Harps and Angels,” and Newman also presented that album’s title song, a bluesy number that worked as nicely (in its own way) with voice and piano as it does with the recording’s chorus and orchestra.
Newman blazed through 33 songs, pausing only every now and then to offer amusing commentary (and one extended story about the price of fame when dining out). They spanned the range of his recordings, from first (“I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” from his self-titled debut) to most recent, with a couple of excursions such as “I Love to See You Smile” from the movie “Parenthood” and “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” one of the most popular results of his longtime work scoring Disney films.
His subjects also present an incredible range. He notes one of the peculiar by-products of aging, as family units re-shape, in “The World Isn’t Fair,” which also, he warned us, shows the failure of Marxism. It does, hilariously. Then he goes right into a ballad like “Losing You,” the simplicity of which only accentuates the ache: “When you’re young and there’s time to forget the past / You don’t think that you will, but you do / But I know that I don’t have time enough /
And I’ll never get over losing you.”
Politics figures into his songs more and more. “Louisiana 1927” dates back 40 years even as it tells the 90-year-old story of a devastating flood and the government’s insufficient response – no surprise that it was revived to be associated with the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. “Putin” gives a jingoistic (and fairly nasty) boost to the Russian president, while “Political Science,” although again going back 40 years, has never seemed more relevant (“Let’s drop the big one now.”)
Towards the end of his second set, right after performing “Sail Away,” a hymnlike song that turns out to be the sales pitch of a slave-trader, he asked for requests. The crowd (and the hall was filled) erupted in chaos. He waved them quiet and performed “I Love L.A.,” another example of his jaunty ambivalence towards what’s regarded as all-American – a set of songs that also includes, from this concert alone, “Jolly Coppers on Parade,” “It’s a Jungle out There,” “Red Bandana,” “My Life Is Good,” and “Dixie Flyer.”
“Lonely at the Top” was the first of two encores; the second, “Feels Like Home,” was magical in the hands (and voices) of Linda Ronstadt and Bonnie Raitt – but even Newman’s performance, at the end of a long night, with more gravel in voice than usual, was enough to get me all misty. Randy Newman deserves his strong, solid base of fans, because he works against the commercial grain as, with inspired craftsmanship, he carves out a penetrating body of songs that never go stale.
Troy Music Hall, Troy NY, Sept. 16, 2017