“I’m playing a lot of songs nobody likes tonight,” Randy Newman remarked after completing a stark and sobering reading of Bad News from Home Friday night at the Opera House.
Well, that assessment might be a touch harsh. Truth to tell, the audience was particularly attentive and appreciative of the two set, 34-song program the veteran songsmith and recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee delivered. But even those well versed in Newman’s music were probably unprepared for the thematic and emotive severity that powered many of his best (though not always best-known) songs. Such jolts, however, were the high points of this consistently involving solo piano concert.
One of the many fascinating aspects to Newman as a performer and composer last night was how unsuspecting he seemed to be. His most immediate charm was as a master wisecracker, capable of songs that mocked affluence and privilege as much as they did personal insecurities and general criminal mischief. Last night, he proved to be a first-class humorist who spun song intros into wry personal yarns, such as the one about bearing his teenage daughter’s belittlements (“You’re not that famous”) in public. That provided a preface to The World Isn’t Fair, a song that turned a narrative about sitting through his child’s school orientation into a social discourse with Karl Marx. Yeah, buddy. That’s rock ’n’ roll.
Just as engaging were My Life is Good and I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It), two savage glimpses of celebrity lifestyle sung from the perspective of a pair of very different high-life deadbeats.
Then there were tunes that were vastly darker, such as Shame, that left you almost a little queasy in singing along (Newman instructed the crowd on the one-word chorus). When a verse called for the song’s central narcissistic sleazeball character to shout “shut up,” a few patrons thought Newman himself was losing his cool. That’s how involving his tunes became and how fully he inhabited the morbid characters that drove them.
Contrasting all of that were the songs that simply stopped you cold – quiet and unsettling sagas like Real Emotional Girl, Baltimore and especially In Germany Before the War. Newman served them all straight-faced with the same low, gloriously unschooled moan of a voice that has remained unblemished through the years.
It was tough keeping score of all the high points that fell between these extremes, but there were many, from the dusty hope of Lover’s Prayer (an underappreciated gem from Newman’s second album, 1970’s 12 Songs, that opened the concert) to the more weathered but redemptive Feels Like Home (from his most recent non-soundtrack recording, 2008’s Harps and Angels, which capped the evening). All were components of a gloriously distinctive pop songbook brought to life with the unassuming and unforced insight of a true American music original.