Randy Newman Nov. 3 at Symphony Center

Randy Newman’s one of those artists who doesn’t need a new album as an excuse to tour — any concert by him will be an event, even if he doesn’t have new songs. I can’t believe I hesitated about whether to see last night’s show. It will certainly make my list of the best concerts I’ve seen in 2006. On the spur of the moment, I decided to check for tickets yesterday and bought one of the nosebleed seats for $25. It was way up on the sixth floor of Symphony Center, the section known as the “Gallery,” which is above the two balconies, with a steep view that seemed almost straight down to the top of Randy’s head and the strings and hammers of that big old grand piano. That was fine with me, though. The acoustics in this place are excellent, of course, so as far as the sound goes, I might as well have been sitting right next to Newman. At one point, he cracked that he had considered singing without a microphone, like the opera singers who appear in the same hall, but that it had scared the technicians.

This was Newman at his best, just him at a piano, singing songs from throughout his career and entertaining with his ever-witty banter. I’ve always liked Newman’s songs best when they are just voice and piano. He’s a marvelous piano player, with a great sense not only for blues and boogie but classical flourishes, too. He’s one of those rare musicians who successfully bridges the musical sophistication of the classical world with the simplicity of pop and folk, without ever sounding pretentious. And his voice? It’s been said so many dang times that this guy can’t carry a tune, and yet I think he has one of the best and most distinctive voices. Then again, I prefer singers who sound like regular people, quirks and all.

Newman played a couple of new songs, including a bit of satire in the tradition of “Political Science,” which he said he’d had to write for his recent performances in Europe. The song is called “A Few Words in Defense of My Country,” and you can pretty much imagine where it goes from there.

What struck me as I heard so many of my favorite Newman songs again was how beautifully phrased they are, both musically and lyrically. Some of the songs are verbose, filled with comedic patter (sharing a certain sensibility with hip-hop, though they sound nothing like rap), but others are so concise, just a few telling lines.

After I saw a Newman concert in 2003 at Park West, I listened to a cassette tape of him playing a show about a decade earlier, and I noticed that he had used much of the same banter and jokes at both shows. Talked about relying on canned jokes. This time, I didn’t recognize too much of the banter — he did use his standard line, “This is sort of like Schubert, but shittier,” and as always, he remarked that “You Can Leave Your Hat On” has come to seem less funny as he’s grown older. Newman did not make an overt references to Hurricane Katrina when he played “Louisiana 1927” — the song speaks for itself — but when playing another song about New Orleans, “Dixie Flyer,” he remarked, “It’s not a great place for fixing things. If a toaster is broken, they have to take it to Mississippi.” After playing “Rednecks,” he said, “I’m proud to say because of the songs I’ve written, racism is no longer a problem.”

Let’s hope Newman follows through with his plan to record an album next year. The two new songs he played last night sounded good. More than ever, we all could use some new Newman songs.

It’s Money That Matters
Yellow Man
Bad News From Home
Short People
The Girls in My Life (Part 1)
The World Isn’t Fair
I Miss You
Red Bandana
Losing You (new song)
A Few Words in Defense of My Country (new song)
You Can Leave Your Hat On
I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It)
Political Science
Last Night I Had A Dream
Love Story
In Germany Before the War
The Great Nations of Europe
You’ve Got a Friend in Me
Real Emotional Girl
My Life is Good
Follow the Flag
Song for the Dead
Dixie Flyer
Louisiana 1927
I Love L.A.
Lonely at the Top
I Think It’s Going to Rain Today