- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 24, 2003

The Birchmere in Alexandria Monday night, Randy Newman personally apologized on behalf of all Southern Californians for the damage Hurricane Isabel inflicted on the Washington area.

It never rains in those sweet and sunny West Coast climes; hence our surfeit of the stuff.

Then he proceeded to play “Louisiana 1927,” a song about — floods. He closed the nearly two-hour show with “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.”

It probably was just a coincidence in a set packed with more than 30 tunes that skittered through war (“Follow the Flag”), white colonialism (“The Great Nations of Europe”), polluted rivers (“Burn On”) and angry, lecherous old men (“Shame”).

Yet it wouldn’t have been unlike Randy Newman to buy trouble.

Best known lately for decidedly uncontroversial work on Hollywood soundtracks (“Toy Story,” “Seabiscuit”), the singer-songwriter has an ornery wit that’s wide open to misinterpretation.

There was “Rednecks,” an N-word-filled parody gleaned from an appearance by the late segregationist Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox on “The Dick Cavett Show.” Then there was “Short People,” in which Mr. Newman sent up the stupidity of judging people on their exteriors — and for his pains earned the wrath of uncomprehending champions of the vertically challenged.

Like ironic daggers pointed at overserious literalists, Mr. Newman’s lyrics are thick with smart topical humor, comic exaggerations and cleverly disguised sexuality — all sung over buoyant New Orleansean piano or in tender torch mode.

Even his love ballads are filled with thinly veiled yuks. “I Miss You,” he said, is “a song I wrote for my first wife — while I was married to my second.”

Whatever the topic, Mr. Newman was an expert at concision. Few songs lasted more than three minutes; they were short bursts of pop perfection.

His politics seem to lean left, but after more than 30 years in the business, he seems more like a mirthfully bitter realist than an agitator.

“All the songs I’ve written about racism have solved the problem,” Mr. Newman cracked after playing “Rednecks.” “It’s all gone.”

He only half-jokingly said “Political Science,” his swipe at a jingoistic, friendless America (“They all hate us anyhow / So let’s drop the big one now”), has proved prophetic. “They finally listened to me,” Mr. Newman said.

The witty asides and anecdotes were at least as entertaining as the music itself Monday night; sometimes they came between songs, sometimes during them.

“Take it,” the solo pianist said to his invisible band mates during an instrumental section of “Birmingham.” “I’m too cheap to have a band, so I have to resort to stuff like that.”

He also explained how, in writing “The World Isn’t Fair,” he accompanied his son to a school orientation session, which inspired a reverie involving a youthful Karl Marx.

Mr. Newman even name-dropped the long-dead British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour at one point while ridiculing the idea that democracy might ever take root in the Middle East.

He’s world-weary, all right, and from behind, his tangle of gray hair is reminiscent of the ‘do of a certain incarcerated congressman from Youngstown, Ohio.

Fashionable Mr. Newman is not; his eyeglass frames are big and square and unstylish, so unlike today’s little round things. His stage outfit consisted of a pair of old jeans, tennis shoes and a black short-sleeve button-down.

After an intermission — “to shoot up,” he joked — he switched to a … gray short-sleeve button-down.

Mr. Newman may not dress like the chic yuppies he slyly poked fun at with “I Love L.A.,” but he made no secret Monday that he has never been above hoping for hit songs, of which, despite being a critical favorite, he has had few.

Indeed, he didn’t personally score a hit with one of his most famous songs, “You Can Leave Your Hat On”; both Joe Cocker and Tom Jones did, however.

That got Mr. Newman on the subject of “geriatric” pop stars. “Nobody has retired,” he said, “Nobody. There are more people around from the ‘60s than from the ‘90s, and I don’t know why.”

There he sat, self-consciously guilty of the same inability to disappear after youth does. “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It)” goes the song Mr. Newman wrote about rock’s oldsters.

It’s true in some cases, to be sure, but not his own.

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