Randy Newman – Jemison Concert Hall (Birmingham, AL)
Over the course of his lengthy career, New Orleans-born composer Randy Newman has been widely misunderstood. Until just a few months ago, the 62-year-old was likely best-known for his ironic delivery of oft-Oscar-nominated songs about friendship within animated movies by Pixar — after nine empty-handed trips (on behalf of a bridesmaid-record fifteen total nominations) to the awards show, he finally took a statue home in 2001 for the Monsters, Inc. tune “If I Didn’t Have You”.
Those with more elephantine memories will recall the abbreviated burst of pre-PC indignation that met the release of Newman’s single “Short People”. Those with more succinct recollections can hang their collective hats on “Louisiana 1927”, a chronicle of the devastating New Orleans flood (“They’re trying to wash us away”) that has become the unwitting soundtrack to America’s post-Katrina remorse.
But just over 30 years ago, with the release of his album Good Old Boys (a southern-themed collection that included “Louisiana 1927”), Newman formed an unbreakable bond with central Alabama through his song “Birmingham”. Still, a bond does not always yield a better understanding.
Outside of his recent televised relief appearances, these days Newman is most often seen fronting local orchestras. For these necessarily prepared-in-advance shows, he will not perform “Rednecks”, Good Old Boys’ lead track, a song written after viewing Dick Cavett’s self-righteous ambush of former Georgia governor and avowed separatist Lester Maddox; the tune liberally thrusts the N-word at both the hard heads of southerners and the soft underbellies of those who would look down upon them. The reason for the omission, Newman has said, is to not offend unwitting symphonic subscribers.
So in Birmingham, performing as part of a series presented at the Jemison Concert Hall, a beautiful (though not beautiful-sounding) room within the University of Alabama-Birmingham’s Alys Stephens Center, in front of a healthy mix of arts patrons and longtime fans, the question, for many, becomes: Will he or won’t he?
Newman walked onto the oversized, echoing stage — no backdrop, no curtain, no opener — alone, save for the requisite Steinway grand. “Thank you,” he responded to the welcoming applause. “I hope you won’t be disappointed.”
The opening number, “Last Night I Had A Dream”, with its passing references to barnyards and vampires, set a proper course for two sets of wide-ranging material, both old and not so, from the presciently political (“Great Nations Of Europe”, “Political Science”) to the readily recognizable (“Mama Told Me Not To Come”, “You Can Leave Your Hat On”) and the brazenly bittersweet (“Living Without You”, “Marie”, “I Miss You”), all introduced with adept asides.
At intermission, within the men’s room closest to the subscribers’ floor seats, a man said, “Hey George. Great program, isn’t it?” To which George replied, “Yeah, he’s funny.”
Not so, poor George, for the pianist’s final run. Newman played “Rednecks” to chambered cheers, then “Birmingham” to a thicker response. Next came “Shame”, the tale of an elderly French Quarter resident imprisoned by his own lust. And by the time Randy Newman closed his performance by clamping down on “Louisiana 1927”, the light air that had earlier circulated within Jemison Concert Hall had been so conclusively sucked out that it might as well have been an unventilated church on a record-breaking summer Sunday in, well, Alabama.