Normally, there are very few surprises at a Randy Newman show. Long-time fans know what to expect: the sui generis singer-songwriter-composer will sit at the grand piano for a few hours and give a guided tour of 40 years worth of songs. He'll offer stories and background details that are often laugh-out-loud funny. He'll come off as believably modest and self-deprecating by the show's end, as if the many gems from his songbook -- songs that are satirical, sentimental, trenchant and often heart-breakingly tender -- were just some old tunes he had lying around. As such, Randy Newman's nearly sold-out performance at the Sheldon Concert Hall was almost free of surprises (save for a medical emergency off-stage, but we'll get to that). But in the place of unpredictability, the attentive crowd was treated to a master-class in American songwriting.
Ambling onto the Sheldon's tiny stage in a dark, shabby suit, Newman said a quick "hello" before launching into the rollicking "It's Money that I Love," a song he referred to as a "spiritual number" to kick off the evening. He followed it with another early song, "Mama Told Me Not to Come," and both sounded a little rushed in places. But Newman's piano-playing hallmarks - his easygoing sway and Louisiana shuffle - didn't take long to lock in. And while that modified barrelhouse style drives many of his songs, his more naked ballads require little more than slow, open chords from his left hand and simple, sympathetic melody lines from his right hand. The gorgeous "Living without You" was an early example of this method, though he'd return to it for songs like "Real Emotional Girl" throughout the set.
Now, one doesn't attend a Randy Newman show (or purchase a Randy Newman record) to hear spot-on, opera-ready vocal performances. The best thing you can say about Newman is that he's had an amazing career in spite of a lovable, iconic but ultimately limited voice. So it's something of a facile criticism to note that his voice was faltering across the upper registers last night. In places, though, it worked to his advantage: The love song "Marie" took on a husky tenderness as he reached for the high notes. From where I was sitting, it sounded less like a struggle and more like real emotion.
Newman's 34-song set list didn't linger too long on his most recent album, the lovely Harps & Angels, though an odd, slightly terrifying bit of synchronicity occurred when he played the title track, which ruminates on death and a premature visit to St. Peter's pearly gates. A gentleman sitting stage right fell to the floor, which led to some commotion as paramedics were called and the man was attended to. Newman, with his back to the scene, continued playing his song about sudden death. He ended with these lines:
My heart begin to pound
It was arrhythmic and out of tune
I lost my equilibrium
And fell face down upon the ground.
Newman soon became aware of the situation and truncated the song, realizing that such mordant ruminations on mortality might be out of tune with the situation. He quickly began the silly, lighthearted "Simon Smith & the Amazing Dancing Bear" as the patron sat back upright and remained in the concert hall until intermission.
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