Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Storyteller in Word and Music: Jimmy Webb at Hugh’s Room, Oct.15, 2011

Jimmy Webb has written some of the most popular songs of the past fifty years. He also wrote some of the most heavily criticized songs of the past fifty years. And some of them are the same songs! When he took the corner stage at Hugh’s Room on Saturday night it was in front of a small group of fans with very few critics. The people loved him, and he returned the favour.

I’ve seen Jimmy four times, in two different venues. In an intimate club like Hugh’s Room, where everyone has just feasted on the Concert Special (which includes pasta and cheesecake), he’s a more relaxed raconteur. On a big stage in a theatre he is slightly more formal, but only slightly. The show began (after the beer and pasta and cheesecake) with a besuited Webb walking onto the stage taking his place at the grand piano and placing a notebook on the piano-stand. He noodled a bit and complimented the room. It’s his favourite place to play, he says. Then he launched into “The Highwayman” the ballad which launched the country supergroup of Cash, Nelson, Jennings and Kristofferson. After the song, he told the first of his long suite of stories. Walking into the studio to find Waylon asleep on a couch, cowboy hat covering his face, Webb reported on their dialog. I’ll give you the Reader’s Digest version; after a few exchanges, Jimmy told Waylon, “I’m in the Country Songwriters’ Hall of Fame,” Waylon snorted and replied “Zat right…what country?”

These are the stories we all paid to hear: intimate anecdotes about life in the music biz. From bumping into Louis Armstrong in a Vegas musician’s lounge, to dating Miss Wales, Rosemarie Frankland, the statuesque beauty from the stairwell in A Hard Day’s Night. He’s got a million of them. Unfortunately, if you came for a night of music you might have left disappointed. All tolled Webb sang nine songs; ten if you count his singalong version of Glen Campbell’s hit “Turn Around, Look At Me,” or eleven if you add his instrumental rendition of the Baptist hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”

He still seems to be amazed by the level of fame he was able to attain, and the doors it opened for him. He talked about hobnobbing with Edward G. Robinson, Veronica Lake, and Mister Sinatra. He spoke about the changes in the music industry, how in the old days they had to sell their records out of the trunks of their cars, and then the Music Industry swept in … and now… he’s selling albums out of the trunk of his car! He talked about the critics who saw his rococo lyrics and baroque music as overwrought, or “poppy.” Webb played his version of the 1967 Grammy Song of the Year by calling it, “maybe a more serious song than we thought the first time…” The song was “Up, Up and Away,” and he confirmed that it’s about BALLOONS!

After tales of drinking Irish whiskey in Galway with Richard Harris, and “Evil Jimmy” abusing Linda Ronstadt, who produced his Suspending Disbelief LP, he played the song everyone had been waiting to hear, “MacArthur Park.” His version turns the song into an extended piano concerto, his 66-year-old voice does not have the range required, but somehow the song seems even stronger when punctuated by the odd croak. It’s a powerful piece of music, whatever it means lyrically.

He bowed, and left the stage, only to return a few minutes later carrying a Coke to tell another epic Mister Sinatra story, and sing “Didn’t We.” Ten minutes later he was signing CDs in the foyer, shaking hands, thanking the audience who loved him. He said to this reviewer, “Thanks for coming, and coming, and coming back!” I shook his hand, thanked him for a great show, and walked out into the misty Toronto night.

David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas with his wife.

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