Randy Newman at Carnegie Hall

Aquarian Weekly 11/8/06

RANDY NEWMAN CARNEGIE HALL, NYC 10/11/06

Randy NewmanAs his proud southern gait ambles Randy Newman across the legendary stage, it is almost possible to see the considerable weight it must convey. It is as telling as his silver hair or sunken jowls, the ever-present spectacles, or the way he leisurely slumps over the grand piano at center stage. The way he tilts his head back to croak out a note or leans into a particularly difficult musical passage. How does he carry all of these characters – despicable, compelling, dangerous, empathetic creatures – trapped inside of him? And where do they come from?

For almost 40 years now, Newman, singer/songwriter/composer/satirist, has created some of the most beautiful, haunting, hilarious, and brave music of his generation, a generation filled with martyrs and megalomaniacs, revolutionaries and immortals. He has stood apart from the mainstream by settling at its core, penning scathing attacks and soulful odes, never wavering from his cocoon of painful truths and seductive lies.

If there has been one artist, literary or not, who has embodied the very spirit of Mark Twain (both hail from the same Bayou incubator), it is Randy Newman.

To watch him perform in the grand stage at Carnegie Hall, dressed in black and tanned by California sun, is something akin to spying. There is none of the grand accompaniment in Newman’s signature string arrangements, much of it displayed in his nearly two-dozen film soundtracks garnering him a record 15 Oscar nominations and one Academy Award, or the privileged list of studio names that graced his 12 studio albums. He is alone, naked on the stage, raw and probing, the way he most certainly was when he pieced together these tales of depravity and turmoil, longing and confession.

But he is not alone, is he?

There is the harping bigot in “Short People”, the brazen pervert in “You Can Leave Your Hat On”, the penitent drunk of a louse in “Marie”, a stalking murderer in “In Germany Before The War”, the former bleeding-heart glutton in “It’s Money That I Love”, the neo-con madman of “Political Science”, the insidious slave-trader of “Sail Away”, and even the indifferently mocking voice of the Lord in “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)”.

To watch him perform in the grand stage at Carnegie Hall, dressed in black and tanned by California sun, is something akin to spying.

But no matter the villain or flawed everyman, Newman’s songs hammer home an empathetic tone, a place for the wretched and shunned to land, safely, without remorse. Sometimes the voices have no redemption, they just are, but the narrator, or even the narrative, does not judge – cold and unblinking in it nature.

Then, just when you think you are mired in a rogue’s gallery, Newman unfurls his most fragile and endearing characters: The spiritual voice of the fallen soldier in “Song For The Dead”, the jilted city-dweller in “Living Without You”, the proud hick in “Birmingham”, the disillusioned waif in “Real Emotional Girl”, the paranoid observer in “Mama Told Me Not To Come”, the relentless pessimistic optimist in “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today”, or the innocently sweet offer of “You’ve Got A Friend In Me”.

And the characters come and go quickly – many of Newman’s songs run barely three minutes – verse/chorus/verse, and thank you very much. But what a ride in those three minutes. Newman goes from blues-standard trotting to ragtime romps and classical inversions in and out of key and back again with such ease it is hypnotizing in its effect – a master craftsman and stirring storyteller at the top of his game.

Newman, much like Twain, is also a clever and unassuming anecdotist, bending an elbow on the piano to regale the audience on the origins of his songs and personal asides. “It’s rare I write autobiographical songs,” Newman mused at one point during the show. “If I did, then I should be in prison or a mental institution.”

Then, on cue, out come the first-person vignettes – self-effacing and profound, almost wincing as they go: “I Miss You”, a heartfelt apology to his first wife, “while I was with my second wife”, “Dixie Flyer”, the bouncy tribute to his childhood, or the exceedingly amusing tell-all journey through celebrity ego in “My Life Is Good”.

Many a marquee boasts “An Evening With…”, but Newman delivers on this promise, because for two hours and two encores you are invited into the unblinkingly stoic resolve of a true commentator on humanity and society, wrapped neatly in wonderful melodies and tied up nicely in loose conversation. There are sing-a-longs and briefly spoken interludes during instrumental breaks, and even a new number or two, but mostly it is the richest of experiences to be able to witness the intimate craft of songwriting and performance in a way few artists dare reveal.

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