TROY — Singer-songwriter Randy Newman, our crustiest curmudgeon of song, also waxed sentimental Saturday at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. Sweetness spiced sarcasm superbly.
Newman, 73, ambled with a bit of a stoop to the Hall’s shiny Steinway. Diving deep into wry cynicism with “It’s Money That I Love,” he said he wanted to start with “something spiritual.” With “Mama Told Me Not to Come” (one of two lighter, older tunes Saturday that hit big for others — “Mama” for Three Dog Night, “You Can Leave Your Hat On” for Joe Cocker”) he showed fear of debauchery then strong attraction to it — our bawdy bard of ambivalence. He said he’d held the humbly grateful “She Chose Me” for years, feeling until recently he was too good-looking for its self-deprecation.
So it went, from pungency to poignancy and back, in evocative pop miniatures seldom needing more than three minutes to cut deep every time. After the skeptical “Jolly Coppers on Parade,” the politically incorrect “Short People” and the cultural/career appropriation lament “Sonny Boy” (the title on his new “Dark Matter” album, but he renamed it Saturday: “The Only Bluesman in Heaven”) came the sweet romantic redemption of “Marie” and the lighthearted/sincere “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.”
The phobic OCD ode “It’s a Jungle Out There” set up the Camelot-slamming (Kennedy) “Brothers.” The tender empty-nest lament “Real Emotional Girl” fed the despairing “Red Bandana” and the even sadder “Guilty.” The bawdy “You Can Leave Your Hat On” added edge to “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It),” a sharp elbow to artists lingering too long in the spotlight. After “Putin” (you know) came the related “Political Science” with its blithe doomsday threat “Let’s drop the big one, see what happens” to close the first set before joking he was headed backstage to shoot up.
The second set sounded better than the first, when reverb over-emphasized Newman’s clipped phrasing, and felt gentler, at times. “Baltimore” echoed the bleak “Red Bandana” from the first set. “Laugh and Be Happy” packed all the irony you’d expect, and so did “In Germany Before the War” and “Sail Away,” a slave trader’s invitation to America.
Unafraid to pick at his own faults, he bragged “My Life Is Good” in the persona of an amoral big shot and said “The World Isn’t Fair” grew from an unhappy parent-teacher conference, recalling how his daughter had once reminded him, “You’re not that famous.” (A happier parent-teen dynamic played out across the aisle from me as Natalie Merchant laughed and sang along, with no eye-rolling from her teen daughter.) The bottomless sad rage of “Louisiana 1927,” though, yielded to the sunny “Dixie Flyer” about the same place.
His most ironic tune, “I Love L.A.,” set up his sweetest, “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.” Both encores, “It’s Lonely at the Top” and “Feels Like Home,” ironically spotlit the sheer singularity of Newman’s talent. The voice was never anything special and is arguably less so now; the piano a chord-heavy base of New Orleans R&B overlaid with Hollywood gloss. But the words, oh, the words!
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