Although he relates that his 17-year-old daughter, “who plays me like a violin,” maintains that he is “not that famous,” singer-songwriter Randy Newman needs no introduction to most music aficionados.
Years ago, when I was a student in Boston, I hitchhiked over to Harvard and forked down $2 to hear him play at the college’s creaky wooden Sanders Theater. It was an unforgettable experience. Since then much has changed, including number of wars and invasions, massive inflation, and the near-death of newspapers — as well as a whole slew of Randy Newman songs, one of which “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country”, was a 2007 New York Times featured editorial. Randy’s songs have been recorded by artists as diverse as the Adam Price Set, Three Dog Night, Etta James, Dave Van Ronk, Keb Mo, Bonnie Raitt, Linda Rondstadt and the late Harry Nilsson (who recorded “Nilsson Sings Newman,” an entire album of his compositions.
But one thing has remained constant: Randy, while grayer, still sounds and plays much the same. And, although he is still not a household name, he can command a crowd, as he proved at a recent appearance at San Francisco’s Symphony Hall as a part of the San Francisco Jazz Festival.
Appropriately, he began the evening’s solo performance with “Down in New Orleans” from the Disney movie “The Princess and the Frog”:
“The evening star is shinin’ bright
So make a wish and hold on tight.
There’s magic in the air tonight
And anything can happen.”
He then continued with the revealing “It’s Money That I love” before turning to tunes, such as the evocative “Birmingham” and his sort-of hit “Short People,” enunciating its extremely sarcastic lyrics with transparent relish.
The lyrics of “The Great Nations of Europe” caused the audience to titter, as did those of the semi-sardonic “The Girls in My Life (Part One),” a simple tale leading up to a family life.
And he touched on history again with what he calls “the reasons for the failure of Marxism” in “Life Isn’t Fair.”
He did show his more serious side, alternating humor with searing emotion, such as in the evocative and emotive “Louise”:
"I loved you the first time I saw you
And I always will love you Marie
I loved you the first time I saw you
And I always will love you Marie"
And Lucinda, which mixes the both pathos and irony:
“Now Lucinda lies buried neath the California sand
Put under by the beach-cleaning man”
Randy told the related the engaging tale of Bob Dylan’s visit to his show. At first he had mistaken John Hammond for Dylan not knowing what Dylan looked like. Then he turned to the the actual Dylan to relate that “I really love your stuff.” Dylan in turn asked him if someday he might be able to write something as good as “Lucinda.” “Reflecting back on it I realize now that he was being totally sarcastic” Newman related.
The famous “You Can Leave Your Hat On” was followed by “Harps and Angels” and then “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It)”:
"I have a family to support
But surely that is no excuse
I've nothing further to report
Time you spend with me
Is time you lose"
This featured a choral singalong (“He’s dead”) which he followed with the impassioned confessional “Losing You” and the humorous “Let’s Drop the Big One” before we found ourselves knocked out of a rapturous trance at intermission.
After the break he took the stage again with “Last Night I Had a Dream” followed by the Three Dog Night hit “Mama Told me Not to Come.”
The sad “In Germany Before the War” was followed by the inimitable “Baltimore” with its refrain of “Man it’s hard just to live.”
Accompanied by a suitable story he played “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” the theme song to Disney’s “Toy Story” followed by another tune from the same soundtrack.
The heartwrenching “When She Loved Me” was followed by the classic “Living Without You.” The affirmative “My Life is Good” was followed by “A Real Emotional Girl” and then what Randy confessed was “the closest to autobiography I have ever gotten” namely “I Miss You”.
The ebullient “Dixie Flyer” perhaps taken from his New Orleans childhood experiences was followed by the lovely “Louisiana”.
He called out for requests. I shouted “Love Story” and he played it flubbing it at one point.
The next song was also a personal favorite “Redneck” which I remember being banned from radio in Boston during the beginning of school bussing.
Randy explained that the song’s reference to “New York Jew” was to the (Christian) talk show host Dick Cavett whom a Georgian might assume to be a Jew who hosted Maddox (who was shouted down by the audience and not allowed to speak) on his popular television show.
There was yet more including “Guilty” the classic “Sail Away” and as a stunning finale the evocative “Feels Like Home”:
"Something in your eyes makes me want to lose myself
Makes me want to lose myself in your arms.
There's something in your voice makes my heart beat fast.
Hope this feeling lasts the rest of my life."
A standing ovation and thunderous applause brought the encore of “I Love LA” and “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.”'