12 August 2018, Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles, CA
When you are in a fairly packed Hollywood Bowl audience and can hear a pin drop, you know you are in the presence of something very special. I have never been in an LA audience that was so hushed and reverent at the same time as so joyful.
Everyone listened. To every lyric sung in that gravelly voice, and to every precise and delicate and forceful and playful and heartbreaking key played on the grand piano. Laughter and tears. More than 10,000 people laughing and crying. My male companion laughed raucously. It was such a delight to sit with a friend so mindfully amused. This was no ordinary concert. This was about being in the presence of pure genius.
I knew that I wanted to see Randy Newman the moment this concert was announced as part of the LA Philharmonic’s season at the Hollywood Bowl. And this was the one that the LA Phil subscribers snapped up before it even went on sale to the general public, leaving only faraway seats to be purchased by the likes of us plebs. I’m all for being up close if I can, but the seats we had weren’t too bad at all, a similar spot to where I have sat for Jeff Lynne’s ELO and Queen and The Go-Gos. Just not brilliant for sharp close-ups photos. The thing with Randy Newman, though, is that it’s really not about a grand display, not even about what’s going on on his face – although I found myself looking at the screens more than I normally would, in order to check what his expressions were like. He spent all of the concert at the piano and most of it with his back to a big portion of the audience. He was hunched over, he wasn’t what you’d call gregarious. But he was so droll. And self-effacing yet unashamed of his brilliance. When he introduced “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It)” it was with an ironic aside about old grey-haired rockers still on the road taking fans’ money. And here was I, whose favourite concerts of the year so far have been musicians in their seventies – Paul Simon, the Eagles, and now Randy Newman.
In fact, the Eagles’ Don Henley cites Simon and Newman as his two favourite American songwriters, and Don was there with family (in the best seats in the house, of course) on this beautiful August night, two days before my birthday. The tickets were in fact a birthday gift, and I was glad to share it with someone who appreciated the music and artistry as much as me, who listened to every lyric sung and responded with the relish such lyrics deserved.
The Hollywood Bowl was fairly packed, as I said, but not sold out. A friend of mine did the PR for Randy Newman on a tour of Australia in the early 1980s, which, she recollects, didn’t sell so well. “My shows always sell out,” Newman told her. “It’s just people come dressed as empty seats.”
I know that an artist would much prefer to have his performances sold out, but I would rather be in an audience that’s short of that but completely attentive and respectful than a sold-out show full of rude rabble. (See Eagles at The Forum, above.)
Randy Newman’s songs are short and to the point. So his setlist featured 29 miraculous, moving numbers that carried us from humour to pathos, from “You Can Leave Your Hat On” and “Short People” and “You’ve Got A Friend In Me” and the truly hilarious “Putin” to “Marie” and “Louisiana 1927” and “Feels Like Home” and the heartbreaking “Wandering Boy”.
“Wandering Boy”, when the hushed reverence was so profound, when the tears were inescapable. The song, from his album Dark Matter, released last year, is one of the most heartbreaking songs ever written. It’s grief and anguish and regret and hope and grace and love all in three precise, compelling minutes. Those three minutes of Newman and his piano and his lyrics to that song at this concert were possibly three of the most stunning minutes I have ever spent listening to live music.
And then his satirical takes on the country he loves and the city that’s always been his home, in songs such as “Sail Away” and “I Love L.A.” (We love it!), performed in the majestic setting of the Bowl with an orchestra, while not taking away from the irony, gave even the most mocking lyrics gravity too.
I can’t profess to have a large collection of Randy Newman albums in my collection, but the ones I proudly have and listen to – Good Old Boys (1974), Little Criminals (1977), Randy Newman’s Faust (1995) and Dark Matter (2017) were well represented. And several of the songs he performed that were on albums I don’t have I knew anyway. Randy Neman might be understated but his body of work is monumental and I am so very grateful that I was at this concert celebrating his 50-year career. To have attended only two shows at the Hollywood Bowl this summer and to have had those shows be Paul Simon and Randy Newman, well… that’s why I love LA. Because I can do that.
Newman’s cousin, David Newman, conducted the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra for this concert and there was a tight four-piece rock band with him also, but the grandest, fullest moments were when the composer and his voice and piano were all there was, filling the vast expanse of the venue, caressing our hearts.
It is the only time I have seen a full concert by Randy Newman, but not the only time I’ve seen him perform. I was so very fortunate to be at the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame Induction ceremony here in LA in 2013, when Don Henley gave the induction speech for Newman, and those performing in his honour were Tom Petty, Jackson Browne and John Fogerty. Seeing those greats along with Randy Newman singing “I Love L.A.” (and also inducted that night were Quincy Jones, Lou Adler and Heart) … oh my, I loved it.
For more of Randy Newman’s witty remarks at the Hollywood Bowl check out the LA Times review of this show.
And there is another detailed account in the Billboard review.