It was as if he decided to start the evening with the encores. Randy Newman sang some of his best-known songs early in the first of his two sets at New York’s Carnegie Hall on October 11th: his 1978 put-down hit “Short People”; “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” a 1970 Number One for Three Dog Night; the comic bedroom funk of “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” But Newman had more than enough classics from his incomparable songbook to fill the rest of this quietly spectacular solo recital. Last night was just Newman at a piano, doing stand-up between songs while sitting down, and singing his acute character portraits — some new and presumably set for his next album — in a rough, sometimes muddy drawl. He didn’t always hit the notes he wanted, but he never failed to touch a nerve.
It was startling to hear the continued relevance in Newman’s best social studies from the Seventies and Eighties: the twisted, defensive conservatism in “Rednecks”; the stampeding greed in “It’s Money That I Love”; the requiem for a drowned people in “Louisiana 1927.” The bully-pulpit foreign policy of 1972’s “Political Science,” a relic of the Nixon presidency, sounded like minutes from that morning’s White House briefing on the Axis of Evil. But as a mocking observer of human foible, Newman took no sides. He collapsed the previous four hundred years of disastrous imperialism into the three minutes of “The Great Nations of Europe” with the same droll precision. It was like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart — with tunes.
Newman is such an understated live performer that it is easy to miss the deep blues in his piano playing. His rolling figures in the lower registers revealed a serious love and study of the New Orleans piano tradition. There were frequent cloudbursts of subtly orchestral Americana too — like Stephen Foster via David Ackles — often when you least expected it, in the middle of a cynical reflection on true love. Newman played as little as necessary, though, in “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” a song of naked fragility but enduring comfort, especially in the way he captured the overwhelming despair and slender hope in his low, trembling voice.
Another highlight in the first set was from Newman’s 1999 album, Bad Love — “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It),” a hilarious commentary on aging pop gods who refuse to get off the road. Like himself, the sixty-one-year-old Newman dryly noted. Frankly, though, if last night was his idea of being dead, he wears it well.