Jimmy Webb, the man responsible for “Up, Up and Away”, “Didn’t We”, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “MacArthur Park,” and on and on, is such an iconic songwriter that he could easily rest on his laurels and just present his hits in their original form and let the audience be satisfied and excited to be so close to a genius of the American Songbook, but he offered so much more than that in his recent appearance at the Cutting Room.
He is a delightful, irascible raconteur, and although his tales were populated with many familiar figures, he is hardly a namedropper. His stories of his friends and fellow artists were delivered with such genuine affection, humility and respect that we hung on every word. Many of the stories are fun and funny, which is particularly fortunate because most of his songs are not (not a criticism, just an observation). Glen Campbell, now stricken with Alzheimer’s, was a constant source of stories both humorous and touching; his continued presence in the show made sense when Webb revealed that Campbell had recorded more than 100 of his songs. What a CD boxed set that would make!
He recalled being invited by Willie Nelson to sub for Johnny Cash at Farm Aid on his own song, “Highwayman”. He protested that he was not licensed to appear before more than 300 people and this was a crowd of 5,000. Nelson replied that since he was already dressed in black he could put on a cowboy hat and no one would notice it wasn’t Cash. He championed songwriters Harry Nilsson and P. F. Sloan, both deserving of wider recognition; repeat interpreters Linda Ronstadt, Art Garfunkel, Richard Harris and others made appearances in the patter. Each story was paired with an appropriate song without seeming arch or programmed. More than in other Webb shows I have seen, there was a definite, if subtle, arc and journey in this set of songs.
And then there are the songs! It is always a treat to hear a songwriter’s interpretation of his own material, and this was especially true on this night. Webb has been re-thinking, re-imagining and re-orchestrating some of his most famous songs and the results were stunning. Add to this the fact that he had led up to the show with a multi-media call for requests, which resulted in some rare additions to his regular repertoire—songs like “Elvis and Me” (about meeting the legend in Vegas), “Shattered” (made especially moving by his revelation that it was written in response to the death of John Lennon), and the lovely “She Moves And Eyes Follow” (originally recorded by Kenny Rankin and presented that night by surprise guest Michael Feinstein, who I wish had memorized the song rather than read the lyrics).
“Wichita Lineman” was treated with an unexpected intensity that suited it well, especially in the frenzied instrumentation. Conversely, the emotional punch of “By The Time I Get to Phoenix” was heightened by an arrangement slower and more understated than usual, allowing the singer to dig deep into the familiar story. A simple line like “…she’ll find the note I left hanging on the wall” resonated like never before simply by Webb putting in an unexpected sigh, making it “…she’ll find the note I left….hanging on the wall.” The highpoint of the set was “MacArthur Park.” Perhaps because he had recently performed the song for the first time in MacArthur Park in San Francisco, he treated this warhorse like a brand new song. Telling us that the lyrics were not hallucinatory, but actual images he saw in the park on a fateful day when a relationship ended, he then proceeded to turn the piece into a haunting and haunted memory song of hurt and regret, culminating in a dark and tempestuous instrumental solo capped by the final verse ending with a raw cry of “Oh, no” filled with pain that was almost too private to witness. I have not heard such a dramatic transformation of a well-known pop song since Joni Mitchell worked similar wonders with “Woodstock” on her “Travelogue” recording.
Even a genius like Jimmy Webb can, it seems, continue to deepen and grow as a singer, a pianist and an artist. The phrase “height of his powers” might have been written for this show and for Jimmy Webb.
Cutting Room – October 23
About the Author
Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”