Songwriter Jimmy Webb still telling stories
By Mark Guarino
The stage featured Jimmy Webb, a baby grand piano and cameos from Harry Nilsson, Glen Campbell, Richard Harris and many others.
The latter group didn’t show, of course, but that didn’t necessarily matter. Although he only performed 12 songs over 90 minutes, Webb regaled the crowd with stories from a past recording era where songwriters like himself were once considered stars and songs with literary detail and that made unconventional detours were once considered having commercial potential.
Like the music, his performance felt bittersweet. At Schubas Friday, the first of two nights, Webb played to an audience of devout fans seated in chairs and primed to hear him sing the songs others made famous. Webb helped elevate the psychedelic era of the late 1960s by writing songs that almost immediately became standards. Like Burt Bacharach and Leonard Cohen, Webb became best known more as a songwriter than a performer; His songs have as much range as the stars who over decades gave them voice — From Frank Sinatra to Isaac Hayes, from Linda Ronstadt to Waylon Jennings.
Webb’s greatest commercial success came through collaborations with two unlikely singers: Campbell and Harris. In his set, Webb went at length about his experience working with both. “First thing he said to me is, ‘when are you going to cut your hair?’” he said of Campbell. “All people with long hair looked alike to him.”
Of Harris: “The day he passed away, it occurred to me deep, deep down that I could die — because he could be bigger than life, bigger than death.”
His performances of those signature songs — “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman,” “MacArthur Park” — made them his own. Webb sang more often than not away from the microphone with his head tilted towards the ceiling, so the concise images of his words had space to breathe. His piano playing switched from saloon pounding to classical flourishes. When a shouted request for “Up, Up and Away” came from the back, he immediately cut himself off in mid-sentence and hammered the keys.
The evening began with a confession of sobriety: Webb, 62, said he hadn’t touched a drink in eight years. “Last time I was here I was drinking … I was as bad a drunk as I ever was in my life,” he said.
From there, over the next 90 minutes, the stories as much as the songs, sounded intimately worn. Like any pundit on cable news, Webb alluded through his music that current affairs haven’t changed much — an unending war, a plunging economy, and, like the protagonist of his songs and the person singing them, a restless heart.