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Randy Newman Review

By Jeffery Lindholm, Burlington Writers’ Workshop

 

The weather on the first evening of the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival was near perfect: a light breeze coming off Lake Champlain, the sun going down over the lake, the temperature hovering in the upper 70s at 7:30 or so. It seemed a shame to go indoors, but enough people chose to do so to pretty much fill up the Flynn Theater for the kickoff show of the fest: singer-songwriter, movie soundtrack composer, and droll satirist Randy Newman.

 

Up on the stage sat a shiny grand piano, a piano bench, and a microphone clipped to a stand. Randy Newman, solo, two sets.

 

Growing up, Newman spent time in both Louisiana and Los Angeles, and after casually strolling onstage, for the first song of his show, he gave us a little bit of both, singing “I Love to See You Smile,” which he wrote for the movie “Parenthood” and which is buoyed by an infectiously bouncy New Orleans piano beat.

 

And that’s how the evening progressed, with Newman offering up the various aspects of his repertoire: songs that are by turns heartrending, goofy, philosophical, childish (in a good way), historical, and personal. So, early in the show he sang “Baltimore,” about urban plight and the people who endure it, then sang his biggest hit, the silly (but still thought provoking) “Short People.”

 

Surprisingly, he did most of the songs he’s known for in the first set, rather than saving them for a big finish. So before the break, in addition to the aforementioned, we also got “Louisiana 1927,” “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” “Guilty,” and “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” from the “Toy Story” soundtrack.

 

Newman also loosened up as the show progressed, talking more to the audience, introducing songs, even getting us to sing along (raucously) to “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It),” about the plight of aging rock and rollers. As he seemed more relaxed, I found myself wishing he would grant us a few purely musical interludes—solos between verses, or perhaps some of the instrumental music from his film scores—to show off his evident piano prowess, but Newman was focused on his songs themselves.

 

During the second set, Newman ranged farther afield, playing less familiar songs, deeper cuts, if you will, such as “In Germany Before the War” and “Real Emotional Girl,” counterbalanced with ramblingly funny stories about this family.

 

And, yes, he did sing “Mama Told Me Not to Come.”

 

So that’s how one guy and one piano (and a microphone) can keep a large group of people entertained on a warm late-spring evening—by keeping their expectations off-kilter and their minds engaged (in a good way).