in performance: randy newman

randy newman, photo by pamela springsteen.

randy newman, photo by pamela springsteen.

It takes a lot to upstage Randy Newman. Yet last night at the Opera House, such a feat was managed by a tiny winged creature – specifically, a bat – that flew out the split second the master songsmith opened his generous two set, 33 song performance with It’s Money That I Love. It was as though the critter had entered on cue.

The 1979 song, a glorious bit of indignant storytelling that reduced its rock-savvy foundation to a solo piano arrangement full of mischievous ragtime and boogie woogie patterns, was Newman at his finest. But the audience roared most each time the bat swirled on and offstage.

“Man, I thought I was Springsteen there for a second,” Newman admitted later in the program.

The bat was somehow apprehended by the time Mama Told Me Not to Come left Newman alone with his piano, his tireless between-tune wit and an immensely crafty catalogue of songs that took huge emotional leaps (and risks) as the night progressed.

It would have been easy to tag Newman strictly as a humorist – a dry satirist, even – early into this program. His work as a raconteur alone could have secured him such titles. At varying points, he took playful stabs at his children (labeling his sons as “lovable old coots” and his daughter as “murderously difficult”), his own instrumental prowess at the piano (“You might think I’d be embarrassed by these piddly little solos, but they don’t bother me a bit”) and even his last Lexington concert, an April 1978 show at the University of Kentucky Student Center Ballroom (a facility he repeatedly referred to last night as “the multi-purpose room”).

And, to be sure, there were songs that mirrored such droll observations with humor that was equally ruptured – from the impossibly odd The World Isn’t Fair (which plastered snapshots of a private school’s orientation ceremony over conversations on societal decay with Karl Marx) to The Great Nations of Europe (where 16th  century voyages of discovery were presented as little more than invasions by disease-carrying marauders) to I’m Dead But I Don’t Know It (a discourse on pop stars outliving their creative worth that became a merry audience sing-a-long). All three works were pulled from Newman’s underrated 1999 album, Bad Love.

But there were also heartbreakers mixed in that sobered up the repertoire but good. Some were desolate love songs where women were treated as emotional castaways (Marie, Real Emotional Girl and the even the hapless A Wedding in Cherokee County). Others were mired in bigotry – specifically, the megahit Short People and the Good Old Boys centerpiece Rednecks, which Newman properly prefaced as being “vulgar in a very babyish and basic way.”

The topper, though, was 1977’s In Germany Before the War, a harrowing confession sung from the perspective of a child murderer. The song, and last night’s stark, European flavored piano reading, didn’t prey on cheap sensationalism of any kind. It was simply a morosely poetic glimpse of a severely disturbed psyche.

Yes, this was the same Randy Newman who later regaled the audience with the ultra G-rated Toy Story hit You’ve Got a Friend in Me (the evening’s only offering from the songsmith’s voluminous catalog of film music). But such were the fortunes of an artist whose music thrives when it shifts from one emotional extreme to the other.

A two-tune encore that bookended Newman’s 40 year recording career underscored such range. On Laugh and Be Happy (one of four songs pulled from 2008’s Harps and Angels), Newman giddily sang of a childlike joy that subdues generational prejudice. But the show closing I Think It’s Going to Rain Today (from Newman’s 1968 self-titled debut album) wrapped a crushing, pervasive loneliness in a delivery of whispery delicacy.

Such fascinating emotive contrasts, above all the hilarity, drove this extraordinary performance. Sure, laugh and be happy, the music seemed to shout. At least until the rain comes.

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