Randy Newman at The Arizona Biltmore

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Randy Newman
The Arizona Biltmore
Sunday, May 29

Randy Newman doesn't need to tour. Grab a singer/songwriter record from the early '70s, why don't you. Look on the back, where the songwriting credits are. Chances are you see Newman's name next to at least one of the songs.

Maybe you saw Toy Story, part one, two, or three. He won an Oscar for that last one, and the movie, aided by Newman's songs, probably made you cry.

It certainly choked me up.

So back to it -- Newman doesn't need to tour -- I'm sure his bank statements are looking pretty healthy with all that Pixar money flowing in. So when a 67 year-old musician decides to hit the road and play two nights at the Arizona Biltmore armed with only a Steinway, you have to wonder where the motivation comes from.

I'd say the guy really loves playing piano and singing his songs for people.

He made plenty of jokes to the contrary, singing, "It's Money That I Love," mocking himself as far past his prime with "I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It)," and joking that "It's mostly money that inspires me," while introducing "Love to See You Smile." But that's just the nature of Newman, constantly poking fun, willing and ready to play the bad guy, or the cheap, cruel, sad, lonesome, or broken guy. His most severe songs? Those are the ones that got the biggest laughs.

Last night marked Newman's second evening at the Biltmore. Joking that the set would be like Saturday night's, only "kinda crappier," he opened up with "Last Night I Had a Dream," far removed from its debut recording as a fuzzy rocker.

Newman sat alone at the piano, in the posh setting of the Biltmore. The lights were low, and the seating intimate. It was like an "old nightclub," my neighbor told me.

Newman told stories all night, interspersing quality commentary between the songs. Playing "Mama Told Me Not To Come," he explained that Three Dog Night had a hit with the song, though he didn't, and speculated the reason why they removed the line about "the hostess": "No hit record has ever had 'hostess' on it."

Like a true performer, Newman knew how to work all the angles, to make them laugh, and to make them cry. He was only on song number three when he decided to play "Losing You," from 2008's Harps and Angels. On the record, there are buoyant strings to liven things up some; live, with just the man at the piano, it was so raw, so sad, and so unbelievably tender. Someone grab the tissues.

"Birmingham" followed, considerably lighter in tone, but not still wistfully nostalgic. Then he played "Short People," and the crowd went nuts. I like the song, yeah -- but I can't help but wonder if people don't grasp the utter lunacy of the song. The crowd was in stitches, and I can't blame them. Newman really plays it up, but truly, the song is like a novelty hit-come- Absurdist statement about bigotry. Seriously, when is the last time a song that dominated the radio?

Newman, of course, followed it up with another heartbreaker, "Marie." "You looked like a princess," he sang, before stopping and exasperatingly explaining "I didn't look like a fucking princess!" The crowd roared, before he settled right back into the melancholy number, and all the chuckles subsided into thoughtful stares.

After the kinky "You Can Leave Your Hat On," one of Newman's most sly, genuinely sexy songs (Yeah, I honestly believe the man's voice is capable of sounding sexy), Newman explained that he always felt like the narrator was less of a creep than critics and listeners initially thought. "I never thought the guy was a threat like some people did. I always felt like the girl [in the song, being instructed to strip] could break him in half." The refrain, "You're giving me a reason to live," echoes Newman's further explanation: "Now I think it's about the saddest song I ever wrote."

He did "You've Got a Friend in Me," telling a hilarious story about Robert Goulet recording the song for the second Toy Story film, and how Newman had to explain to Goulet why it was inappropriate to insert "baby" and "babe" into the chorus.

Introducing "The Girls of My Life Pt. 1," Newman joked that he realized one day that his work probably hadn't earned him a spot in the greatest songwriters book, joking that he turned to the "S-section" and noted that his work couldn't stand up against Steve Miller, Sly Stone, The Seeds, and Franz Schubert. "That's what we do in L.A.: we take a look at ourselves in the mirror and judge the state of the world by what we see." 

"The Girls of My Life Pt. 1" was intended to be part of a song cycle, which he abandoned. "It's like Schubert or Brahms, only shittier," Newman joked.

He continued shifting from the jovial to the damning: "Harps and Angels," about a hilarious glimpse into the afterlife, was followed by the somber "Baltimore." "I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It)", which included the crowd chanting the morbid refrain of "He's dead! He's dead!" was followed by "Love Story (You and Me)," the first track from his 1968 debut.

His other big hit, "I Love L.A." was received with cheers and hollers from the crowd, and he followed it up with another biting one, "Political Science" (which I featured on our blog a couple days ago).

Newman closed his set with "I Think It's Going to Rain Today." "Human kindness is overflowing," he sang, "And I think it's going to rain today." It was somber, reflective and beautiful. Newman's piano work wasn't flawless -- it wasn't flawless at any point in the night, actually -- but it was perfectly endearing. "Tin can at my feet/think I'll kick it down the street," he sang. It's just a simple line, but in Newman's hands it takes on serious weight.

Newman encored with two songs, "It's Lonely at the Top," which he wrote for Sinatra but Ol' Blue Eyes turned down, and "Feels Like Home," another track from Harps and Angels. Forlorn and pretty, it was a perfect way to end the night. Newman isn't just a songwriter, he's an entertainer. He knows how to tug the heartstrings, knows when to crack a smile, and knows that satire is often the best way to drive a point home.

I generally despise when people say stuff like, "They don't make them like they used to" about songwriters. There are songwriters as good as Randy Newman working today, cranking out albums in studios and basements around the country. There are people with as firm a grasp on life and art as Newman, touring in vans and playing pianos, guitars, and pressing play on laptops in some bar. There are artists as tender, moving, and as funny as Randy Newman working right now, making good art that will last for years.

You'll just have to forgive me, though, for not remembering any of their names at this moment.

Critics Notebook

Last Night: Randy Newman at the Arizona Biltmore

The Crowd:
Baby boomers with exquisite taste.

Overheard: "He's got, what I could call, um, staying power."

Personal Bias: After the show, I went to a party where an acquaintance lambasted me for writing a "thousand word blowjob" of Newman, who "hadn't put out a decent album in 29 years." Problem was, I don't think I actually wrote anything about Newman save a short blog post a couple days ago. Guess this fawning, overly sentimental review will give Dave something to give me grief over.

Random Notebook Dump: "Wish the chatterbox over there in the expensive seats would shut the hell up."  

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