MILWAUKEE—It’s been so long since Randy Newman’s been on the pop music radar that it’s easy to forget he’s an American treasure, a literate lyricist and facile tunesmith who ranks among the finest songwriters to ever score a chart hit. But given the rare opportunity to hear him comb through his immense back catalog, just him and his piano, you can’t help but be flabbergasted by the man’s genius—his unique combination of wry social commentary and empathetic character sketches, of cynicism and sentimentality, of hummable hooks and inventive compositions.
This rare tour is ostensibly in support of The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 1, on which he reinterprets some of his favorite tunes on solo piano. As he does on the album, Newman managed in concert to make old songs sound fresh, with a comic timing and phrasing so sharp that lines the audience had heard hundreds of times before (“Got to pick ‘em up just to say hello” from “Short People”) still managed to garner belly laughs.
Newman began with “Last Night I Had a Dream” from 1972’s Sail Away, and proceeded to cover tunes from every phase of his career, right up through the biting “The Great Nations of Europe” and the heartbreaking “I Miss You” from Bad Love, the only non-soundtrack album of new material he’d released since the late 1980s.
What separates Newman from just about any other writer of “funny songs” is that the jokes rarely come easy, and the punch lines never let the audience off the hook. The obnoxious cretin in “Shame,” the aging rocker in “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It)” and the arrogant millionaire in “It’s Money That I Love” all inspire laughs, but Newman almost never looks down upon even the most reprehensible of his characters; he knows that we’ve all got similar flaws somewhere inside us. Which is what makes “Rednecks” still both hilarious and moving —we might laugh at the guy singing “we don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground” until we realize, sometimes neither do we.
The two-hour show’s most rewarding moments came not in broadsides like “Political Science” or “The Great Nations of Europe,” but from haunting ballads like “Song for the Dead” and “In Germany Before the War”—songs heavily produced on the original albums that had more emotional power in the solo-piano format. I’d swear the entire audience held its breath during much of “In Germany Before the War” and “I Miss You” (a song Newman introduced as “a love song I wrote for my first wife while I was married to my second wife”). No joke.