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Jimmy Webb

(22 May 2005: Hammersmith Lyric — London)


Jimmy Webb


Jimmy Webb strode onto the stage without an introduction. Black from head to toe (black suit, black shirt, black tie, black shoes) he went across the bare white stage, sat at the piano, and began to play. First came the rumble of far-off thunder from his left hand, then the tinkle of rain from his right. Then Webb sang the familiar lyrics of “The Highwayman” as he launched into one of his many tunes made popular by other artists. The song seemed an appropriate choice to begin with at a London gig, as highwaymen are the outlaws of British folklore. Webb crooned all four parts of the narrative and lingered on the “oohs” that serve as musical transitions between the quartet of narratives.


Webb’s longish, grey hair swung as he sang. His arms moved energetically left to right, right to left, as he banged the keys. The mostly white, middle-aged crowd broke out in loud applause when Webb finished. This is what they came for: a legendary songwriter performing his most famous hits.


Then for the first time, Webb smiled. The ice was broken. He told a few stories: the first concerned the late Waylon Jennings, who crooned one section of the hit record version of “The Highwayman”. Jennings asked Webb when was he finally going to write a country tune. Webb responded that he received a Grammy Award for Best Country Song for “The Highwayman”, to which Jennings responded, “Yeah, but for what country?”


The other tale concerned Willie Nelson (another Highwayman participant) at the Dallas Live Aid show. Nelson invited Webb, but did not schedule him to perform. When Johnny Cash got sick at the last minute and couldn’t make the show, Nelson asked Webb to sing in the Man in Black’s place on “The Highwayman”. Webb said that he was used to performing at 300 seat venues and he was scared, as there were more than 65,000 people in attendance. Webb said that Nelson was silent for a second, looked at Webb and then remarked, “Hell, you’re already dressed in black. Nobody will know the difference.” Webb said Nelson was correct, although Webb said he confused everybody out there when he sat down and played the piano (an instrument Cash rarely played in public).


And that’s how it went all night: Webb would perform one of his most popular songs (including “Wichita Lineman”, By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”, “Galveston”, and “Didn’t We”) and then tell a charming story that featured the artist that made the tune a hit (such as Frank Sinatra, Glen Campbell, and Rosemary Clooney).


Webb also introduced a number of songs from his first new album in ten years, Twilight of the Renegades. Every tune on the disc is a story song about famous (such as Marilyn Monroe) and not so famous rebels. Judging by the audience’s reaction and the quality of the material, the record should do well. The best new song concerned a classroom joker who was popular for his antics but never accepted conventional value. He became homeless later in life because of his inability to compromise. Webb cleverly conveyed how the character’s inner self remained constant despite his declining fortunes.


The crowd was a bit feisty and would sometimes verbally comment on Webb’s anecdotes. Webb proved handy at handling the friendly hecklers. When Webb mentioned that he had not drunk an alcoholic beverage in almost five years, a member of the audience shouted, “That’s something to be ashamed of,” to which Webb quickly retorted, “No, that’s something to be applauded.” He then told a story about travelling across the UK with Richard Harris, when Webb was just 21-years old. Webb said they drank constantly, but Harris seemed totally unaffected by the booze. At one point in the middle of the night, they drove by a huge factory, that was all lit up and obviously going at it full tilt. Soon the air smelled of whiskey; the factory was a distillery. Webb said to Harris, no matter how much you consume, the factory could put out more than you will ever drink. Harris responded, “Yes that’s true, but look, I got ‘em working nights now.”


Webb closed with his epic “McArthur Park”, which was a mistake. The English actor Harris was able to make the composition a hit by the virtue of his great dramatic talent. The song itself teeters on the maudlin and mundane, something Webb himself must know. When I interviewed Webb a decade ago while he was publicizing his great solo record Ten Easy Pieces, the one thing his press agent said I could not ask was whatever happened to that cake out in the rain. Webb had no answer and had been asked about it too many times. Because “McArthur Park” must be Webb’s best selling tune, he must have felt compelled to sing it. Hearing Webb try to dramatize the lyrics was painful.


Webb, like many singer-songwriters, has a serviceable but not great voice. He could not hit the very high or very low notes and instead just sang these parts louder for emphasis. Meanwhile, it appeared Webb hurt himself while hitting the keys so hard. The crowd clapped in appreciation of the fact Webb had written his song, but few seemed impressed by his rendition. That said, when Web left the stage, he was called back for an encore-twice.


For the first encore Webb sang a tune from his new album, and then took an audience request for “Adios”. Many in the crowd yelled the song’s name when he asked for requests, so the song must be more popular in England than the United States. As the title suggests, the song concerns the end of a love affair. For the second encore Webb performed a lovely version of “Time Flies”, which concerns how our actions become our memories—much like the way his concert went from song to song, each tune reminding us of things that happen(ed) outside the theatre, until the show ended and became, itself, just another memory.

Steven Horowitz has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Iowa, where he continues to teach a three-credit online course on "Rock and Roll in America". He has written for many different popular and academic publications including American Music, Paste and the Icon. Horowitz is a firm believer in Paul Goodman's neofunctional perspective on culture and that Sam Cooke was right, a change is gonna come.


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