“Someone wrote in the paper that the president was like a character out of a Randy Newman song. And there’s some truth in it,” said the artist in question, headlining the Hollywood Bowl Sunday night. Newman did have some material to offer that speaks more directly to recent geopolitical events (like “Putin”), but in this case, he was introducing a 1983 oldie, “My Life is Good,” a crude portrait of conspicuously uncouth consumption that feels far less over-the-top than it once did. “This,” he told the crowd, “is a song where… it’s as if President Trump went to a parent-teacher meeting.”
As is the case for pretty much every Newman performance, at times you might wonder if a laugh track was being piped in: Did folks guffaw so loudly at the “Let’s drop the big one” lines in 1972’s “Political Science” because they were only just hearing it for the first time, or do his audiences have that great a capacity to be tickled anew? Either way, that kangaroo-honoring, apocalyptic perennial still merits a nervously roaring response. “I’m glad to hear you feel that way,” Newman said. “You know, they don’t laugh in Europe anymore when I play that.”
Fortunately, this was a crowd that knew when to stop laughing and start swooning, which was the appropriate reaction when the full, exquisitely delicate force of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra kicked in on more sober classics like “Louisiana 1927” and “Losing You.” Newman remains a master farceur second — although it’s been a hell of a name-staking identifier for him, for 50 years now — and a conjurer of indescribable beauty first and foremost, however much he undercuts the sublimity of even his most gorgeous melodies and arrangements with evocations of alcoholism or cruelty or despair… or comedy. With the roughly 100-piece Bowl Orchestra in tow, the symphonic divinity trumped even the expert rudeness of his miniaturist portraits of an America that’s down in the hole.
The orchestra wasn’t the only bonus; Newman brought along something even rarer, for him — a rock band. For these five decades, he’s toured pretty much exclusively as a solo act, having figured out early on that the combos that served him on record didn’t work for him live. (Apparently it’s easy for a screaming lead to step on the satire.) His only appearances with a group have been quick one-offs, like his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction mini-gig or a “Halos and Angels” full-album promotional show at Largo a few years ago. One thing is for sure: he’s never had the orchestra and a band sharing a stage.
Members of his small electric combo — which included keyboardist Mitchell Froom, who’s co-produced all of Newman’s records since 1999 — are reportedly hoping that Newman will see fit to repeat this formula in at least a few other cities, and maybe, in a perfect world, with his esteemed cousin, David Newman, reprising his conducting duties from the Bowl. If that were to happen, it would be a great victory lap for someone who belongs with Dylan, Springsteen and Simon on the Mount Rushmore of the greatest American rock-era singer-songwriters. If he doesn’t (and Newman appearances are rare enough these days; a health concern forced him to cancel a European tour earlier this year), his adopted hometown, which loves him back, got a swell — and gorgeously swelling — one-off.
The subtitle for the evening was “The Albums: 1968-2018,” with the promise that Newman would perform at least one song from each of his 12 studio albums. The night didn’t really need that conceit: Don’t tell anyone, but he usually gets around to every album at every gig. It helps that the idiosyncratic album he otherwise might be least likely to sample from, “Faust,” actually spawned what has turned into a 21st century standard, “Feels Like Home.” And he’d lately been reviving “Mama Told Me Not to Come” from the otherwise hits-barren “12 Songs.”
It was a fairly typical Newman set list, notwithstanding the highly atypical accompaniment. But typical does not mean lazy. Through two sets that were both nearly an hour long, he hit not only the Newman standards — giving an extra, sumptuous spin to depressive all-time corkers like “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” — but deeper cuts, too, from the more obscure “Cowboy,” from his 1968 debut, and four selections from the latest effort, including “Putin” (which he described as “being about a great world leader, as he’s taking a little vacation from running both countries”).
The most poignant of the newish material was “Wandering Boy,” which, in typical Newman fashion, had a spoken introduction that left it unclear whether you should prepare to laugh or cry. He described being a visitor to Labor Day parties in his New Orleans childhood where “my father saw this red-haired kid and he said, ‘That kid’s gonna be president someday.’ A real lively kind of kid. The kid became a junkie, actually. But that’s what this song is about — things you don’t expect to happen to families.” The ensuing portrait of a father who’s lost touch with a probably homeless and drug-addled son made it clear: tears would be the only punchline here.
Meanwhile, you could look for something poignant, and maybe even find it, in the clear comic highlight of the night, “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It),” which Newman described as being about “geriatric rock and roll — myself included, obviously.” He continued: “But I think there are more people on the road now from the ‘70s than there are from the 2000s. I don’t think any of us thought that what we were doing was so very important, but anyone who had a hit in ’83 is still out. And why quit? No one taps you on the shoulder and says, ‘You’re really washed up, you oughta hang it up.’ And no one’s applauding at home, so everybody just keeps going. And I don’t know what’s gonna stop it. An elephant gun, maybe.” Instructing the audience how to sing “You’re dead!” back to him in the chorus, he quipped, “It doesn’t have to be that vicious, really… There’s a lot of women leading out there. Perhaps we know them.”
Also not necessarily flagging the appropriate response from an audience was his introduction to the venerable “In Germany Before the War,” which, he noted, was “a song about a murderer. This one would have been a hit. I blame this on the record company. This is the type of shit kids love.” It stands as the most haunting and gorgeous song ever written about a psychopath, and his changing the key of the central piano figure to make it even prettier in the closing bars — yet spookily out of synch with the rest of the orchestra — is a combination of beauty and unease that is typically… Newman-esque.
As a film scorer, Newman is obviously sensitive to the workhorse demands on orchestral players. He expressed his gratitude for the work they did in bringing a suite from “The Natural” back to life before he came on stage, and later, he signaled his intent to call out individual members of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra for their contributions along the way, even if he ultimately didn’t get around to many of the nearly 100 players. After performing “I Love to See You Smile,” he offered: “That song is sort of easy for me. I’ve been doing it since I was 12 years old, those shuffles like that. But it’s more of a workout for the flutes, and I wanted to introduce them.” He then called them out individually, and you’ve never seen three flautists look so pleasantly shocked on a big screen.