Concert review: Randy Newman spikes Atlanta show with humor and heart

A man in the wilderness with only his piano. Photo: Melissa Ruggieri/AJC

The setting was perfect.

A guy who only needs his piano and the sharp, sardonic voice in his head sat at the keyboard of his ebony grand piano, unfurling his 1979 album opener, “It’s Money That I Love.”

Randy Newman played two sets of songs from his 40-year career. Photo: Melissa Ruggieri/AJC

Solid-color lighting shaded the curtain backdrop and stage floor at Atlanta Symphony Hall, a minimalistic set for a most unpretentious artist.

As he bent toward the keys, a thatch of silvery-white hair – offsetting his man-in-black attire – faced the crowd, a not-quite-sold-out group that was alternately reverential and giddy, totally game to sing as instructed during “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It Yet)” and unsure whether or not to punctuate “I Love L.A.” with its trademark echo,  “We love it!”

Randy Newman is back on the road promoting his first new album in almost a decade.

He’s been busy, of course, with Grammy and Oscar nominations and wins for his work in animated films (including, since his last album, “The Princess and the Frog,” “Toy Story 3” and “Monsters University”).

But at his Friday night appearance at Symphony Hall, Newman was determined to pack as much of his 40-year career as possible into two 50-minute sets spliced with an intermission.

That meant a sampling of songs from his excellent new album that showcase his diverse emotional reach. There was the tender expression of awe (“She Chose Me”), the lyrically hilariously, musically see-sawing “Putin” and the tribute to the original Sonny Boy Williamson, “Sonny Boy.”

Chestnuts from the ‘70s (“Guilty,” “Baltimore” and “Political Science” – save the kangaroos!), ‘80s (“Bad News From Home”) and ‘90s (“The World Isn’t Fair”) peppered the generous set list, all delivered in Newman’s familiar husky rasp.

His was never a pretty instrument and his songs have always leaned closer to spoken word than traditional singing. There were a few rough vocal patches during the show, but most of the time, as when Newman struggled to stay in key during “In Germany Before the War,” his broken tone fit the desolation of the song.

His piano playing, meanwhile, is steeped in the blues, jazz and ragtime heritage of his native New Orleans, and his minimalistic approach kept the spotlight on his narratives.

Newman recently released his first album in nearly a decade, “Dark Matter.” Photo: Melissa Ruggieri/AJC

Newman’s genius as a songwriter was re-introduced upon hearing many of these songs again. And, while he briskly rolled through his repertoire, he paused just enough to also remind us of his incisive humor.

As the introduction to his Oscar-winning declaration of companionship, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” Newman joked that “the people at Pixar have a certain impression of me…that I’m stupid.” He explained that the first few times he watched “Toy Story” – sans music – he was so engrossed in thinking about what songs to apply to the film that he never noticed it was animated.

After the enjoyable bounce of “Short People,” Newman quipped, “That’s it for the hits portion of the show.”

And that really isn’t a joke. Newman’s sole chart hit was, indeed, that tremendously misinterpreted bundle of sarcasm.

Many of his most familiar songs – “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” – were interpreted to much greater success by artists including Joe Cocker, Three Dog Night and Bette Midler, respectively.

But that’s OK with Newman, even though he slyly teased that the key and tempo changes in “Hat” are the reasons Cocker and Tom Jones scaled the charts with his song.

Newman will turn 74 at the end of the month, so there is no doubt that when he sings about a love fulfilled in “Feels Like Home,” his pre-encore heartbreaker, there is plenty of wistfulness in his words.

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