Jimmy Webb @ Musical Instrument Museum|2/1/13
It's always interesting hearing an alternate version of a popular song. That's one of the appeals of live music. But that version is especially worthwhile when it's the original version by the original artist.
Such is the case at a Jimmy Webb concert. A prolific songwriter, Webb amassed an array of hits in the 1960s and 1970s--all performed by other artists. Tonight at the Musical Instrument Museum Webb demonstrated how those hit songs were intended to sound before each recording artist put his or her own touch on it--many earning Grammy Awards.
Perhaps best known among the Webb-song hit makers is Phoenix's Glen Campbell, and Webb praised him several times during the evening.
"How lucky I was to have him interpret my music," he said. Three songs Campbell scored hits with were performed--each to rousing applause--including "Galveston," "Wichita Lineman," and "By The Time I Get To Phoenix." Under Webb's deft touch at the piano these songs were "transformed" from the radio-friendly versions to the emotional powerhouses they were originally imagined as.
"Galveston" ebbed and flowed like the bay's tides, capturing all the original longing of the displaced Vietnam vet central to the story, while "Wichita Lineman" carried that everyday housewife longing to new levels of desperation and desire, the tinkling keyboards sounding like a lonesome telegraph line. "By The Time I Ger to Phoenix," carried all the heartache of separation, right down to the minor key phone ringing that went forever unanswered.
Between songs Webb entertained the sold out crowd with assorted tales of career development, unlikely success, debauchery, meeting then-President Bill Clinton, and other oddities that cemented relationships with many of the artists he worked with and led to in some cases song formation. Webb, for example, filled in for Johnny Cash at a Farm Aid concert, singing Cash's part of "Highwayman," this performance's opening number. Webb explained hanging out and while the state song, "Oklahoma Nights" with Vince Gill, a fellow Okie--"It's OK to say Okie now," Webb assured the crowd, "but if you said it to my dad, he'd have hit you." He followed this "that strange Jimmy Webb song," "Up, Up and Away," a Top 10 hit for the Fifth Dimension. Webb put a lot of effort into the song, pounding hard on the piano, but it was needed to push the "regularly" up-tempo soul hit along. Webb also worked his way through Art Garfunkel's hit "All I Know," Frank Sinatra's "Didn't We," as well a show closing "MacArthur Park."
For many of the songs there was almost a show tune or piano lounge quality far removed from the pop hits heard back in the day on the radio. But there was a little too much talk. While the anecdotes with delivered in humorous fashion, some went only longer than the songs he was introducing. A few more songs--Webb has some many to choose from in his 50-year career--would have been nice.
But, it was also nice to get inside the songwriting process and creative inspiration behind these iconic songs--you just can't make that kind of stuff up. It's a worthwhile trade-off when one considers few in recorded history have been able to make up songs like Webb--the proof is on the radio.
Critic's Notebook: Last Night: Jimmy Webb, prolific hit songwriter
Personal bias: Many of his hit songs were in regular rotation as a kid. "Wichita Lineman" was the first song I learned on the guitar.
The crowd: With the exception of some teens/20s dragged undoubtedly by parents, I was the youngest person in attendance.
Random notebook dump: He's the consummate showman in love with the limelight--but he can tell a good tale.
Overheard: On the way out the door: "With all those stories about drinking and drunkenness, it's a good thing he stopped or he'd be dead for sure."