Monday, November 09, 2009

Jimmy Webb & Webb Family Birmingham Town Hall 8th November

There's a great Graham Nash (as in the Hollies and Crosby, Stills and the other one) quote about song writing. "We're all fishing in the same river, but Bob Dylan is further upstream and he's catching all the big ones." Well Jimmy Webb's knows a good spot too and has landed some whoppers.

Songs like the Glen Campbell versions of Wichita Lineman and By The Time I Get To Phoenix are like Elvis and Johnny Cash...we sneered at them as adolescents but eventually we realised our parents were probably right. Webb’s songs are grown up songs about grown up subjects. I mean, The Wichita Linesman even has a job. Mind you so does the Highwayman which is tonight's set opener

The tour was billed as The Webb Family and was a neat way round a few potential pitfalls facing an aging performer known as a songwriter rather than a singer and whose drinking buddies had been a thirsty Harry Neilson and a parched Richard Harris. His sons have put out albums as the Webb Brothers, including the excellent Maroon lp.

He'd also brought along Cal Campbell (Glen's son) on drums and Romeo from the Magic Numbers. Which means you get a great sounding band, the complementary style of the Webb Brothers own songs intermingled with Jimmy's own, and other vocalists to take the pressure off Jimmy for any parts he didn't fancy singing. And plenty of time for the stories and between song chat and what stories they were.

Around a third of the gig's running time was chat....and not a word too many. What there wasn't too much of though was an audience. It was a painfully empty Town Hall (or Parthenon as Jimmy referred to it as). but the gig itself was a bit of a treat. Webb Snr looking great in pinstripes, stayed at the piano. Son Jamie though had the last word in a cream jacket with a painted floral design. It looked good enough for Gram Parsons.

The band sounded really good, but restrained and unfussy considering how much was going on, bass, drums, 3 guitars, pedal steel, keyboards and Jimmy Webb’s piano. My favourite instrument of the night though was the Melodica type instrument with a flexible tube to blow through, that the Webb brothers passed around like prison porn. When James played it in his Nashville attire, he looked less like Augustus Pablo and more like an Ood in a Nudie suit. (That’s one for the Dr Who fans)

Jimmy introduced If These Walls Could Speak as a song he'd written specifically with Waylon Jennings in mind, and described at length and with great humour how it was perfect for Jennings’s voice, although the song ended up being sung by Amy Grant, Nanci Griffith and countless other female singers. He also, tellingly, described how he thought he'd written it about a house in New Jersey he'd lived, but had ended up realising that the song "Was actually about me"

Jimmy Webb introduced Galveston as a song written during the Vietnam War. Jamie sang it in a much higher key than Glen Campbell’s version, if anything a reminder of the easy confidence of Campbell’s vocal style. When the song finished everyone left the stage to be replaced by the voice of Jimmy’s own father singing Red Sails In The Sunset. After a bit of Webb reminiscence about his dad coming back from military service smelling of Old Spice (the 2 anecdotes may not necessarily be linked) Jimmy started talking about his own experiences as a father and the mistakes he had made. The song No Christian No was in recognition of the way he'd spoken to his own son as a child. Apparently it was one of Kurt Vonnegut’s favourite songs.

Aah yes the name dropping was extravagant. But there again why shouldn't it be? He's Jimmy Webb and he wrote those songs. One particular anecdote which must have spanned 10 minutes, veered from Richard Harris (the telegram read "Jimmy Webb come to London. Make record!") to The Girl he was trying (and failing) to impress (Miss Wales, later Miss World) to the song he wrote for her (she thought it was "silly") so he gave it to Art Garfunkel. He played that unaccompanied on the piano.

When the band bounced back on stage they inexplicably (apart from the fact that he wrote it) played Up Up And Away. It may be perfect slice of 60's silliness and the soundtrack of choice for all local news programmes about ballooning, but I wouldn't have played it and left out Do What You Gotta Do.

Wichita Linesman and By The Time I get To Phoenix were introduced by the line that "If it wasn't for Glen Campbell then we wouldn't all be on stage here tonight". Almost on cue Cal Campbell responded with "If it wasn't for Glen Campbell I wouldn't be here tonight". Rehearsed spontaneity. And still funny.

The set closer was the still baffling Macarthur Park. The Beatle savvy Webb Brothers turned the mid section into a slice of Abbey Road style languid loveliness, before the frantic Bond theme style final section. If that song is bonkers, then the Richard Harris album it came from (yes, Jimmy Webb did go to London) A Tramp Shining is very odd indeed. But then you would expect that given another of Webb’s anecdotes. During a Rolls Royce road trip round the Irish west coast Harris boomed "We'll stay at my sister’s house. You can sleep in the bed where I was conceived"

They encored with a stunning version of Without You which was sung really well by Jamie. Webb talked about how much he missed Nilsson (the boys used to call him as Uncle Harry) and that singing it was way of invoking Nilsson’s name so he can remain immortal, as the ancient Greeks would have done.(yes the Town Hall/Parthenon analogy had really got to Webb). Without You is one of those songs that I usually think I’d rather appreciate from a distance rather than listen to. It’s just too rich and there’s just too much of it. (And despite what my old neighbour thinks the human heart has never been broken badly enough to merit playing Without You followed by Lorraine Ellison’s Stay With Me Baby. Continuously. And on repeat!)

Overall then, a good gig. Jimmy Webb’s songs speak for themselves and if they couldn’t then he certainly can.

Highway man
Bad Things Happen To Good People
I Could Turn The Stars Around For Us
If These Walls Could Speak
Hollow Victory
Kick it like an old tin can
Red Sails In The Sunset
Christian No
All I Know
Up Up And Away
PF Sloane,
Witchita Lineman
By The Time I get To Pheonix
The Worst That Could Happen
Macarthur Park

Without You