I have been a Randy Newman fan for more than forty years. I have seen him perform solo at Wake Chapel (he sang “God’s Song”) in Winston Salem and at, of all places, Carowinds theme park. Friday night was the first time I saw him perform with a full orchestra. The orchestra, conducted by Albert-George Schram, accompanied his piano and vocals using arrangements written by Randy Newman. Randy Newman himself conducted the orchestra on suites from four of his movie scores.
Randy Newman and the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra performed to a full house at Belk Theater Friday night, January 15, 2016.
The opening number was “Birmingham,” somewhat surprising as it’s not one of Newman’s best known numbers. But, as the symphony came in with its whimsical, syncopated accompaniment, it was clearly a good fit. It’s one of Newman’s anthropological numbers about a roller in a steel mill, his wife named Mary (but called Marie), and Dan, the “meanest dog in Alabam’.”
After Birmingham, Newman mentioned that the orchestra would sit out the next number–“not that they refused to play it.” As the lights on the symphony went down, the opening piano chords of “Short People” came up. The audience was clearly pleased. Afterwards, Newman said, “Wow, that sounded especially mean tonight.”
The next three tunes were love songs:
“I Miss You,” a “love song to my first wife I wrote while I was married to my second wife.” “Love Story” (You and Me) is an outline of a vapid, nine-to-five existence that, ironically, “sounds pretty good today.” The first lines of “Marie” say it all “You looked like a princess the night we met, with your hair piled up high, I will never forget. I’m drunk right now baby . . .”
The evening felt like a gathering at Newman’s home–with ninety or so of his musical friends backing him up. Commentary between songs was conversational and entertaining. He was extremely complimentary of the orchestra and the conductor–and he has performed with many of the best.
From the piano, he told of fighting with his young daughter over a chair with its back to the room in a restaurant. After some back and forth, she shut down the argument by saying, “You’re not that famous.”
From the podium, before conducting the “Suite from The Natural,” he turned from the music to a microphone set up behind the podium three times to relate a story about meeting Paul McCartney. McCartney, at this meeting, jumped over a couch to sit down beside Newman. (Turn back to podium and then to the mic.) When Sir Paul acted like it was no big deal, Newman said, “Aren’t you like eighty nine years old?” (Turn to music and back.) “Impressed the shit out of me!”
At 72, Newman is still musically as vital as ever. Sure, he shuffles across the stage to the piano, and to the podium and back from the piano. He changed spectacles when he switched from playing to conducting. But nothing is wrong with his musical chops. Several of the songs he performed are new and will be included in an album he’s releasing this year. So he’s still writing and, obviously, performing.
Newman conducted four suites from his movies: Toy Story and the Natural just before intermission, and Maverick and Avalon (“a movie no Gentile ever saw”) just after intermission.
At intermission, as I was wandering around the lobby, a man approached me and asked me if I was from Iredell County. Being, usually, constitutionally incapable of lying, I said, “Yes I am.” He said, “You don’t remember me, but I’m John Godfrey.” He was wrong. I did not recognize him (and was surprised he recognized me) but I definitely remembered John (of course, as Johnny). I said of course I remember you. We went to the same high school. John was a year older than I, so we weren’t high school friends. However, we both went to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and, at one point, we both lived in a trailer park near the University. We became close friends and and shared a number of experiences which are, today, no one else’s business. I think the statute of limitations has expired on most of them, anyway.
Playing solo on “You can leave your hat on,” Newman commented afterward, “Joe Cocker and Tom Jones both had hits with this because they pitched it up a sixth (brief piano demonstration). Just like me to see a hit coming and run the other direction.”
Newman introduced “In Germany before the War” simply as “a song about a murderer.” This song offers ethereal orchestration, melodies that alternate between minor and augmented voicings as the point of view shifts between the narrator and the murderer, and simple but chilling lyrics: “A little girl has lost her way, with hair of gold and eyes of gray reflected in his glasses as he watches her.” It’s a perfect combination of writing, composing, and arranging, though melancholy and chilling. (As one observer has noted, Newman writes three-minute masterpieces.)
The remainder of the second set was an upbeat “best of” Randy Newman: “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” from Toy Story. “Sail Away.” “Political Science,” (“Let’s drop the big one now!”), and finally “Louisiana 1927,” followed by a standing ovation by the entire audience.
Two encores followed as Newman shuffled off and back onto the stage: “Lonely at the Top,” (Newman thanked the tuba player before playing the tune for “what he is about to do.”), and “I think It’s going to Rain Today,” (Perhaps Newman’s most-covered song.)
After shaking hands with the concert master and conductor and sharing another standing ovation with the entire orchestra, Newman picked up his other pair of glasses from the piano, shook hands with several fans who approached the stage, and shuffled away.