TVD Live: Randy Newman at the Birchmere, 9/18

PHOTOS: RICHIE DOWNS | At 73, Randy Newman is still writing sharp and funny political songs, elaborate and cynical set pieces about the state of the world and, in between them, the kind of stark songs that unexpectedly rip your heart out. At a wide-ranging, 2-set, 33 song panorama of his work of the past half century, fans responded to his oldest, most enduring numbers but were just as knocked out by the newest things, as collected on his new Nonesuch collection Dark Matter.

The new collection kicks off with a kind of mini-opera about science vs. religion, but he skipped it altogether on the first of a two night stint at The Birchmere in Alexandria, in place of several songs of particular interest to the politically-minded crowd.

Not only was there “Putin,” his opus to the preening Soviet leader, there was a new one imagining John and Bobby Kennedy in the White House talking about the Cuban Missile Crisis, Celia Cruz, and the head of the Washington NFL team, “Mr. George Preston Marshall” who “runs them like a plantation,” “for never has a black man worn the burgundy and gold.”

He almost forlornly sang “Political Science,” his famously sardonic call to “drop the big one now” because “no one likes us.” “It’s harder to sing this now,” he said, the day before the U.S. president would call for “the total destruction” of North Korea.

Several of his older songs had a resonance, of course, from the strivings of “Baltimore” (“Man, it’s just hard just to live”) to “Louisiana 1927” in the aftermath of a string of devastating recent floods, accurate down to the requisite presidential visit “with a little fat man with a notepad in his hand.” On the subject of immigration, there’s his overly jaunty “Laugh and Be Happy”; for race relations, one of his most deeply cynical songs, an imagined recruitment song for slavery, “Sail Away.”

He widened his vision with a couple of songs, a dark murder ballad “In Germany Before the War” before the brash takedown of colonialism, “The Great Nations of Europe.” But it wasn’t as if he were the political piano man in the tradition of Mark Russell. He had a couple of those cheery movie tunes the kids know, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” and “I Love to See You Smile.” He had those barroom standards, from “You Can Leave Your Hat On” to “Mama Told me Not To Come.” He had his own radio hits like “Short People” and, by request, “I Love L.A.” He had his splendid song of family history, “Dixie Flyer,” and he had a couple of his self-deprecating assessments, “It’s Lonely at the Top” and “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It).”

But he could also stop the show with still, stunning songs of romance—from “She Chose Me” to “Marie” to “Still the Same Girl.” It was remarkable of two of the most striking songs in that vein were new ones – a portrait of a family seeing their mother on the death-bed for the last time, “Lost Without You” whose power seemed to stun even Newman. “That’s a pretty good one, I think,” he said when it was over. And there was “Wandering Boy,” a new song that approaches “Danny Boy” in its lamentation of loss.

Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and rumpled in appearance, Newman was generous with songs and with stories of his life growing up in a musical family, whose uncles composed so many movie soundtracks. He goofed around a little bit as well, as when he started one song to some applause only to caution, “it could be anything,” and began singing a bit of “The House of the Rising Sun.”

Beneath each song, of course, was his splendid piano work, with touches of ragtime syncopation that connected it with American music from the turn of the last century, underscoring how timeless so much of his material is.

It’s a Jungle Out There
It’s Money That I Love
She Chose Me
Jolly Coppers on Parade
Short People
You’ve Got a Friend in Me
Real Emotional Girl
Red Bandana
Sonny Boy
Still the Same Girl
You Can Leave Your Hat On
I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It)
Political Science

Mama Told Me Not to Come
Laugh and Be Happy
In Germany Before the War
The Great Nations of Europe
The World Isn’t Fair
Lost Without You
Dixie Flyer
Louisiana 1927
Harps and Angels
I Love to See You Smile
Sail Away
I Love L.A.
Wandering Boy

Lonely at the Top
I Think It’s Going to Rain Today

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