Randy Newman’s show at Largo kicked off with the title track of “Harps and Angels,” which recounts a near-death experience (it wasn’t his time, God tells him, just a clerical error), but both the concert and the wonderful new album (due Aug. 5 on Nonesuch) show Newman to be at the height of his powers, writing some of the most acerbic and heartfelt songs of his career.
The perf, which will be broadcast and streamed on NPR, showcased the new album — which was performed start to finish, along with his usual deadpan commentary — but was also notable as the first time in more than 10 years that Newman appeared onstage with his own band. He assembled a crack quartet for the occasion, including the album’s co-producer, Mitchell Froom, on keyboards and Joey Waronker, the son of the album’s other co-producer, Lenny Waronker, on drums. Their understated playing, combined with Largo’s superlative sound system, made for a lovely, intimate perf that streamlined the album’s arrangements without losing any of their humor and bite.
Once again, the songs deftly mix the personal and political. “Losing You” and “Feels Like Home” are love songs with a melancholy streak, while “Potholes” (the “only song I’ve ever written where every word is true”) is a wry appreciation of family life told with arched eyebrows and a loving touch.
But the best songs show off Newman’s masterful hand as a pasticheur. “Laugh and Be Happy” is introduced as a nonpolitical number, but its jaunty melody and chin-up optimism wouldn’t have sounded out of place in a 1930s political campaign — although the dig at the country’s current anti-immigrant mood might have caused some head scratching. The blaring dissonance of the horns and asymmetrical rhythms of “A Piece of the Pie” are right out Kurt Weill, while the lyrical skewering of America’s economic queasiness would not have surprised Bertolt Brecht.
“Korean Parents” hitches some Martin Denny “oriental” exoticism to a modest proposal — selling Korean parents to Americans to improve their kids’ education. The punchline of “Only a Girl” hits harder because it’s clear to everyone but the narrator and is accompanied by some breezy Crescent City jazz.
Newman seemed almost surprised that these mostly unfamiliar songs were so well received by the sold-out Largo aud. He shouldn’t be.