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Live review: Randy Newman at Royce Hall

February 20, 2010 |  4:15 pm

Newman Randy Newman's best, most pointed songs usually will come around again with enough time, timely once more either from history repeating itself, or mankind living up to his worst expectations.

At his concert Friday for UCLA Live at Royce Hall, his quietly wounded and defiant “Louisiana 1927” told of another generation's devastating flood, but had new poignancy in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And, sadly, the biting, hilarious detail of 1972's “Political Science” may never lose its relevance: “They all hate us anyhow / So let's drop the big one now.”

His two-hour solo performance of musical storytelling and ribald character studies began with the singer-songwriter ambling over to his Steinway, a man in black and a full head of white hair plucking the spooky melody from “Last Night I Had a Dream,” a dark and funny tale. It set a tone for the night.

Newman sang of prejudice as absurdity on the joyful and nasty “Short People,” tapping his foot to a bouncy beat and still getting laughs for the old hit song three decades later: “They got grubby little fingers, and dirty little minds / They're gonna get you every time.”

He picked on aging rockers on “I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It),” and Newman, now 66, explained, “I've noticed, as you have, that no one is retiring from rock 'n' roll.”

The jokes come easy to Newman, and so do pathos and universal pain. He sang of real heartbreak in “Marie,” adding a brief lilt of hopefulness on the melancholy “Living Without You,” both of them quiet tunes riveting enough to carry the big hall.

There were also songs from “Harps and Angels,” his first album of new material in nine years. He said the biting “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” was inspired by recent political history and was perhaps already out of date, as it targeted another White House administration, among others, but he said it was worth performing “one last time.” He sang it with relish.

He also played “Down in New Orleans,” one of his two Academy Award-nominated  songs from 
Disney's animated “The Princess and the Frog.” On the soundtrack, it's powerfully performed by Dr. John, but Newman reclaimed the song's jaunty melody, singing with affection for the great musical city of his early childhood.

He slipped into a loopy melody and sang of a wild party on “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” a song from his classic 1970 album, “12 Songs,” and a hit that same year for Three Dog Night. He's played it a thousand times or more, but mid-tune he muttered, “No . . .  wait a second,” pausing in frustration, apparently losing his place, seemingly puzzled by the interruption. “It's the only hit I ever had,” he joked. (It wasn't.)

During a tentative “Birmingham,” he stopped again to look at his hands. “What's the matter? I don't ask much of you.”

Later, he apologized and explained he'd been working all day on music for the upcoming “Toy Story 3,” and had a cold besides, but meditated to clear his head for the show. “I figured I'd go on muscle memory,” he said, joking again, “I forgot how weak I'd gotten.”

--Steve Appleford

Photo credit: Autumn de Wilde

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