Friday 17 April 2015

Jimmy Webb at Alban Arena 15 April 2015

Jimmy Webb (pic: David Brewster)

When I get a call in the morning offering me a chance to see Jimmy Webb this evening, I have to think for a minute before accepting. I know the name, but can’t quite place him. One quick scan of Wikipedia later and I am prepared to trample the infirm to get a ticket.

So a few hours later, I’m sat in the Alban Arena marvelling that such an iconic songwriter is still prepared to schlep around to places like this. Shouldn’t he be lounging around a piano shaped swimming pool in California somewhere?

Before the main act we are treated to a very enjoyable set from Deborah Rose, a folk-inflected singer with a beautiful, clear Welsh voice and a penchant for Victorian poets.

Many of Rose’s songs are based on adaptations of romantic classics. She sings of the Lady of Shalott and references other of works Tennyson and Sir Walter Scott. It makes for a very pleasurable performance.

Jimmy Webb don’t stand on ceremony. He bellies up to a battered piano (pronounced ‘pianner’) and tells folksy tales from his long life as a songwriter.

It’s a simple set up and one that draws you in. As he talks, his hands wander over the piano keys, finding melodies and motifs. He pays them no mind. They seem to have a life of their own and they have served him well.

A Jimmy Webb song often drips with emotion, an aching in the heart. Quite early on he plays ‘Galveston’, a meditation on the effects of what the US Government couldn’t bring itself to describe as a ‘war’ in Vietnam. Webb is still impassioned about this and rightly says that when 50,000 men die it sure feels like a war.

Webb’s story is entwined with that of his great friend and collaborator Glen Campbell. Webb was a hippie and Campbell a redneck Republican, but each recognised something in the other and glorious music resulted.

Webb can’t quite sing the same anymore and encourages the audience to help him out on the high notes. A version of ‘Up, Up and Away’ is surprisingly moving, with the pianist throwing his head back, closing his eyes and straining after the soaring tune.

He is much more comfortable with tales of everyday heartbreak. ‘By the Time I get to Phoenix’ still packs a hefty wallop. This is soul music in the truest sense of the word. The style may often be called ‘country’ but the songs address the very fibre of your being.

Webb closes his main set with a tale of Glen Campbell, cruelly struck down by advanced Alzheimer’s disease, playing back to back versions of ‘Wichita Lineman’ because the applause at the end of the first version went on so long that Campbell forgot that he had just played it. Campbell’s second take on the song is even better than the first.

The ‘Wichita Lineman’ that Jimmy Webb plays tonight is so fragile that it is as bright and delicate as a crystal spider-string. The ghostly song fades away until it is just a single piano key forlornly tap, tap, tapping in the darkness. It is genuinely one of the most affecting songs that I have ever seen played.

At the end of the show, Webb announces that he wants to meet everyone outside, shake hands and sign any bit of memorabilia that comes his way. He is a true gentleman, still humble, a master of his art. 

A legend of music in every sense of the word.  

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