Randy Newman Performs 28-Song Set At The Hollywood Bowl

Randy Newman
Scott Kowalchyk/CBS via Getty Images

Randy Newman performs on Aug. 1, 2017.

Randy Newman is reliably enjoyable in doses large or small, but for him to perform 28 songs across two-plus hours with nicely melded accompaniment from the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, as he did on Sunday night, makes for a true career landmark.

Those in the crowd who knew he canceled a string of dates in Europe earlier this year to undergo urgently needed knee surgery were happy just to see the 73-year-old ambulate (a bit froggishly, as he might say) across the sprawling Bowl stage to shake hands with the concert master and sit at the piano. His cousin David Newman had just opened the affair by conducting the orchestra with a powerful reading of Randy’s “Suite from The Natural,” a swelling pop-classical invocation, which, as Newman pointed out, is the same stage-setting music that crowds awaiting a Billy Joel concert hear: “Billy Joel uses that music to come out—he really does because he is the natural.” (It was a straightforward collegial dap; not only did Joel recruit Newman for the first Farm Aid concert in 1985, Randy’s doctor father, Irving, once operated on a Joel leg injury in the early 70s during the “Piano Man” days.)

“Very kind of you,” he said of the opening applause, “Randy Newman--you know who it is?” Indeed, his performance of various hits and fondly regarded quirkier tunes would be predictably free of gyrations or vanity—simply a man seated at a gleaming Steinway paying close attention to the keyboard he worked with his enduring ragtime influences, and also finding ways to deliver the full musicality of his familiar talk-singing style. The face we saw in close-up on large monitors was similarly unhistrionic, even as cousin David worked the baton with intense, fluid energy. The linking of musical generations –David, like fellow film composer Tom, is a son of famed film composer Alfred—lent the program a palpable depth, and for all the welcome sardonicism Randy can bring to his patter and performance, the emotional undercurrent was just as tender-hearted as it was jocular.  

The songs spilled out, even with their added deft orchestrations, as heartily welcomed gifts that generally came in under three minutes. To be sure, the audience would hear the more rollicking radio-days must-haves—“Leave Your Hat On,” Short People,” “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,”, “I Love L.A.” and other favorites. He even name-checked Tom Jones and Joe Cocker as “other geriatric artists” who had done “Leave Your Hat On,” while pointing out their cover versions were each “real excited about sex” while his writerly intent was to portray the song’s narrator as more “on the fence”. He doubled down on the crowd’s laughter to add “Speaking of children”—which he hadn’t—and depict his own kids (“Now 75 and 73”) as a lead in to “The World Isn’t Fair,” an apologia to Karl Marx.) 

There is an entire subset of Newman material derived from his own experiences in the hothouse of Los Angeles private schools. The satire included “The World Isn’t Fair”’s school-orientation scene of “young mommies…with froggish men, unpleasant to see,” which drew the evening’s loudest knowing laughter, and that scoffing resonated in “My Life Is Good,” another sardonic critique of LA’s wealthy, self-swollen showbiz types.

But the night’s real enchantments were in the quieter moments--the bittersweet admissions of “Marie” (“When you’re in trouble I just turn away”), the simple gratitude of “She Chose Me” (“I’m not much to talk to and I know how I look”), the heart-piercing depths (“If you see him push him towards the light”) of the sadly melodic “Wandering Boy”.

Remarkably, the latter song lifts off Newman’s strong Dark Matter album as one of the songwriter’s strongest. Newman shared its genesis with the crowd; the song derives from gatherings of the extended Newman clan where one red-headed lad in particular impressed the parents with his frisky energy, and one predicted the boy would be president one day. “Actually,” he concluded in a prototype Newman formulation, “The kid became a junkie.” And yet the vocal performance, as the song led into the set’s turn towards its conclusion, was quietly passionate and lifted the entire evening into something unforgettable.

Given the nation’s current political circumstances, there was a longing for the famously satirical Newman side, and a song like “Political Science” (“They all hate us anyhow/So let’s drop the big one now”) followed by the mordant “In Germany” (based on the real-life, murdering Vampire of Dusseldorf) led naturally to the archly comic “Putin”—a gleeful roasting of the villain that was written before the Russian got his fangs into our current political scene.

Newman twice introduced his highly capable band, including Mitchell Froom, a storied figure in his own right, and also took time to congratulate various “distinguished” featured players from the orchestra. He clung to his self-deprecating stance, advising the audience before a sort of half time break that “We’re gonna shoot up and come out and do the rest of the show.”

From the giant ensemble’s re-emergence with “It’s Money That Matters”—“I like to start things with a spiritual moment if I can”--the path through the set’s closers would clearly tip towards deeper resonances. Newman somehow made the transition from the epochal “Sail Away”, which summons up slavery’s mocking cruelties, to the humorously lashing “I’m Dead and I Don’t Know It,” which was intro’d with the notion that the only way to stop the old grey-haired rockers "clogging the stages” might be “an elephant gun.”

He was quick to thus indict himself, but Newman need never apologize. When Don Henley introduced him at his Rock `n Roll Hall of Fame induction, Newman quipped, “It’s hard for me to express a genuine emotion,” and that has remained a durably charming claim, but it was not for nothing he closed with “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today”. It’s a song that can stand in the front rank of the American songbook, with its spare iconography of poverty and its view of shattered human friendships, and as the refrain tauntingly has it, “Human kindness is overflowing.” In recognizing “The frozen smiles to chase love away,” Newman’s debut made him a songwriting exemplar.  In an outburst of sincerity while introducing the song on Sunday, he said of the evening, “Hope you enjoyed it”—of which the crowd’s roar left no doubt—adding, “I did.” Clearly he was in a place that, to quote the title of his penultimate song, “Feels Like Home”—a similarly fortunate place for the Angelenos who shared it with him this night.