“My career is stagnating,” a casually dressed Randy Newman joked late in his first of three nights at House of Blues, lamenting the lack of geographical distance between this stage and the club he started in, the Troubadour. Well, it’s his own fault. Newman’s impressive turn to film, which has resulted in 12 Oscar noms, has kept him from recording new pop tunes for 11 years, and as much as the pop game has changed in that time, there still remains a spot for this master of the ironic and sublime.
The singular mirror Newman holds up to society not only improves with age, his new material sheds an equally vivid light on the perils of man, divorced and remarried, raised in the rock ‘n’ roll subculture and fascinated with European history. As he moves from rednecks to missing an ex-wife to aging rock stars to Baltimore, the audience is reminded over and over how Newman’s sophistication and clarity in music and lyrics stand alone in rock’s canon. His best recordings were always the sparest ones and in this solo piano setting, everything benefited from that focused treatment.
Newman started with the old — “It’s Money that I Love,” “Birmingham,” the gentle “Marie,” and “Short People” — before turning to music from his new DreamWorks disc, “Bad Love.” Maturity, in Newman’s case, is no buzzword for aging. He sees the goofiness of older men with young wives in “The World Isn’t Fair,” rock stars not knowing when to hang it up in “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It)” and tackles 500 years of history in “The Great Nations of Europe,” which was intriguingly followed by his Cold War bomb scare ditty “Political Science.”
As much as the first person has dominated his writing, Newman was always assimilating a character, none better than the people of his brilliant 1974 disc “Gold Old Boys.” In “Bad Love’s” songs the “I” is that of a well-meaning realist with dark shadings and a sarcastic response to all of life’s riddles. For once, Newman’s writing about himself.
Thirty-three songs — “Lonely at the Top,” Louisiana” and the new “My Country” were stellar –filled close to two hours and Newman’s running commentary was as pinpoint as the lyrics. At 55, he seemingly understands romance better than ever — but he always keeps you wondering. After a rushed performance of his kinky “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” the song best known for its steamy appearance in “9-1/2 Weeks,” Newman noted, “As I get older, I take (that song) more seriously.” Somehow, that’s reassuring.