Monday, March 21, 2011

Web of Relationships

Who: Jimmy Webb
Where: The Presenters Dolan at the Kranzberg Center
When: March 17 - 19, 2011

If you were to look at the song list from Jimmy Webb’s show – eleven numbers, including the encore – you might be surprised to learn that the evening runs an uninterrupted an hour and fifty minutes. You might then wonder if that was because (a) Mr. Webb’s arrangements of his own material tend to be a bit post-Wagnerian or (b) he talks quite a bit between numbers. The correct answer, as it turns out, would be (c) – a little of both, but mostly the latter.

Mr. Webb’s show might best be described as a series of anecdotes drawn from his illustrious and celebrity-strewn career and punctuated by a brace of his popular and highly regarded songs. For Jimmy Webb fans – and there were quite a few in the house the night we saw him – I expect that this was a major treat, judging by the standing ovation he received. For me, however, it was all a bit much. Yes, I’ve always admired Mr. Webb’s work, and there’s no denying that he’s one of the major songwriters of the last fifty years. I clearly don’t love his work the way most of his audience did, however, and after a while I was tempted, like his preacher father in one of those anecdotes, to start looking at my watch.

For the Webbophile, though, the evening offered many of his biggest hits, including “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” “Up Up and Away”, “Galveston” (an indirect but still poignant anti-war song) and, one of my favorites, the romantically pantheistic “Highwayman”. There were also some that were less familiar (at least to me), including the droll “Campo de Encino” (which gently parodies 1970s California dreaming), “What Does A Woman See In a Man” (in which the man and woman are not so much from different planets as alternate universes) and the lovely “No Signs of Age”, which was preceded by an affectionate reminiscence of the late Richard Harris.

And, yes, he did give the fans an encore: a high-volume, passionate “McArthur Park” – a song which I once admired but now find oddly dated.

Mr. Webb delivered nearly all of his songs in more or less the same manner, with his head back, eyes closed and fingers pounding the piano into submission. I realize I’m in the minority on this one, but for me Mr. Webb’s vocal limitations and the lack of variety in his approach were major drawbacks. I’ve heard other artists do his complex melodies and literate lyrics far more justice. For me, the closest Mr. Webb got to giving his songs their due was his take on “Wichita Lineman” with its strong sense of lonely, wide-open spaces and a slow fade-out at the upper end of the piano, suggesting a solitary telegraph operator sending his Morse code over the wires. The Glenn Campbell original got the same effect with strings, as I recall, but this seemed more magical.

Mr. Webb tied all the songs together with generally entertaining but sometimes lengthy and discursive stories about the various entertainment legends he has known – and he has known plenty. There were also a few about his own life and how it shaped his music. I would have preferred more of the latter (especially about his rarely mentioned family) and less of the former. In particular, I could have done without his nostalgia for Sinatra, the singer’s friends in “The Family” and the days when they ruled Las Vegas. No doubt The Mob did make Vegas classy in the same way that the Fascists made the trains run on time, but in both cases the price was a bit high.

But again, this is all written from the perspective of a contemporary of Mr. Webb who liked but never loved his work. For me, the evening would have been more enjoyable if he had trimmed it by around 30 minutes and indulged both his admirers and himself a bit less. As it was, I had the sense that he assumed he’d be among fans from the beginning – and I don’t think any performer, no matter how justly celebrated, should take that for granted.

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