It was unseasonably warm in Los Angeles on Sunday night, but Randy Newman was in something of an autumnal mood at Disney Hall, delivering a program of trenchant political observation, melancholy love songs and finely observed character studies that are often at their most compassionate when they seem harshest. He also introduced a couple of intriguing songs in the course of two one-hour sets.
The perf, part of Disney Hall’s Songbook series, didn’t stray far from the blueprint Newman has been following since the release of 2003’s “Songbook: Volume 1” (Nonesuch). There was just Newman at the piano, playing his songs and adding his dryly mordant commentary. The songs and the jokes change only slightly, but Newman is an accomplished performer, and for those who’d never seen him before (and judging from the surprised, slightly uncomfortable giggles that greeted even well-known material such as “Short People,” a segment of the aud had not), they felt fresh and off the cuff.
Subtle changes in the setlist gave the evening a darker tone than his appearance at Royce Hall a few years ago. The wide-ranging set featured some of his best-known material: “Sail Away,” “God’s Song,” “You Can Leave Your Hat On” and “I Love to See You Smile.”
But alongside these were songs with a distinct edge of melancholy, a sense of looking back and taking stock. “My Country” (from 1999’s “Bad Love,” his last collection of new material) invites the listener to “go back in time/when a phone call cost a dime”; and in a post-Katrina world, the flood of “Louisiana 1927” takes on added dimension.
One of the new numbers is a rueful love song about the one that got away, with the refrain “I’ll never get over letting you go”; another takes on the loss of memory that comes with age: “God bless the potholes on memory lane.”
The evening’s other new tune is in the vein of “Political Science” (which he noted did not get a laugh when he played it in Europe over the summer), where he damns President Bush with faint praise: He may be the worst leader of our lifetime, he says, but not the worst ever, using the Caesars, Torquemada, Hitler and Stalin to prove his point.
One hopes these are not teasers but are planned as part of a new album.