Gig review: Jimmy Webb at Leeds City Varieties

Jimmy Webb

Jimmy Webb

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By The Time I Get to Phoenix and Wichita Lineman, to name just two: Jimmy Webb’s most indelible compositions excel in rich storytelling that has more in common with movies than the strictly restricted timeframe of pop songs.

As such, it’s probably no surprise that Webb’s wild tales from his nearly 50 years as one of America’s foremost songwriters prove at least as big a draw as a choice selection of the biggest hits he’s penned for a cavalcade of stars, performed solo on grand piano.

At the peak of his powers, Webb hopped, chameleon-like, from working with a wholesome all-American entertainer such as Glen Campbell (Webb speaks movingly of Campbell’s advanced Alzheimer’s and clearly ranks their many collaborations as an artistic peak) to writing the music for an anti-Vietnam war stage show. This allowed him to hit it off with the diverse cast of characters that populate tonight’s entertaining anecdotes: one minute, we encounter laconically drawling country legend Waylon Jennings, the next, Webb’s hellraising in London and Ireland with Richard Harris, who apparently called an end to the sessions for the duo’s joint album (including the epic melodrama MacArthur Park, a suitably dramatic take on which closes the main set tonight) as soon as the family-sized jug of Pimms brought in to the studio as fuel was drained.

Starting with his modest upbringing in rural Oklahoma and rapidly escalating to the heights of showbusiness in late 60s California, the 68-year old’s ‘journey in song’ – including nuggets such as freshly solo Art Garfunkel, having heard and rejected Webb’s entire catalogue, requesting a song that’s ‘more yellow’, which Webb happened to have handy in All I Know, and Webb’s Baptist preacher father putting an end to a ban on the 5th Dimension’s Up, Up and Away with a personal visit to the radio station that dared to suggest the innocent ditty was somehow drug-orientated, armed with a .45 and a Bible – is such an engaging trip that Webb should be promptly pressurised into penning an autobiography.

It also makes up for Webb’s limitations as a singer. Webb is a virtuoso pianist and he does a good job with belting out the shape-shifting, time-travelling reincarnation opus Highwayman that opens the evening. However, he regularly strains to hit the more gilded notes on his most sumptuous compositions, which doesn’t do justice to the luxurious melodies that enabled Webb to become one of the few songwriters that were invited to step away from the backroom to share the spotlight. That hardly matters, though: everyone here knows these tunes inside out, and the thrill of seeing them lovingly performed by their author is enough to compensate for some botched high notes.

Gig date: April 7

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