Randy Newman took the stage at the Woodland Park Zoo Wednesday evening in a floppy, untucked, button-down shirt, the uniform of choice for many in his audience of male boomers, who slouched atop suffering folding chairs.
He played unaccompanied — save for his grand piano and upright eyebrows — for two sets that ranged from ’60s gems (“Mama Told Me Not to Come,”) to more recent hits (“You’ve Got a Friend in Me”) penned for his gig as the Pixar house organ.
The songs were short and the stories were long. Newman spent less time on his first three numbers — he opened with “It’s Money That I Love” — than he did telling the abridged version of the “Toy Story” saga.
“As long as Woody and Buzz want to run around, I’ll run after them with a couple of flutes,” he said. “I’ve made a lot of money,” he added soon after, “and I’m very happy about it.”
To call Newman one of the country’s great “singer/songwriters” would be to elide the fact he is one of the greatest singers
and the greatest songwriters. His is one of the greatest voices in popular music (a much different quality than “perfect”) and his songs are among the very best.
Newman’s voice has the ability to peel back inhibitions and expose emotional nerve endings. There’s a comforting nostalgia to his sound, his songs washing over the listener. This is why the preferred way to experience Randy Newman’s music is as naked as possible. Anything that gets in the way, whether it’s excessive instrumentation — guitars, drums and other noisemakers — distract from his magnificent instrument and the characters in his songs.
While the instrumentation of the performance was perfect, the venue was not. Yes, it’s a great venue for what it is. And it’s the optimal time (kickoff was at 6:15 p.m.) and space for kids to roam around wearing Buzz Lightyear wings. A picnic is the wrong setting for his music, which got lost in the expanse of the scenery. A contained room like Benaroya Hall would have been a more appropriate setting. It also would have been a space that would have made Newman’s nonchalance more engaging.
Newman performs in a cozy, perfunctory manner — like the houseguest who’s implored to sit down at the piano and “play that song again.” There’s a rush to the repertoire. His songs don’t end as much as they whisper to a close, and suddenly, he’s plucking into the next number; pounding on the keys, raising his voice and lifting his eyebrows.