A few months ago I attended a Jimmy Webb concert that took place in Cincinnati. This was a very rare opportunity to see a unique and extremely talented artist, and although some time has passed since the event, I’m assuming there are some music lovers floating through cyberspace who might find this of interest.
Because the Internet can tell us anything we sometimes have a concert memorized before the band takes the stage. We’ve studied the setlist, know every possible encore, we’ve watched youtube from earlier in the tour, and the only potential for surprise would be a power shortage. Personally, I try to avoid overpreparing for concerts, but sometimes it’s difficult to achieve a state of total ignorance before sitting down at a concert. Before I attended the Jimmy Webb concert that took place at St. Xavier High School in Finneytown I pictured, because it was a high school, a gymnasium where someone placed hundreds of folding chair on the floor and called it a concert venue. Already I could smell the cafeteria food from lunch hour and the sweat from gym class.
Still, though, I wanted to go because—well, because Jimmy Webb wrote “Galveston,” “Wichita Lineman,” “By The Time I Get to Phoenix” and all kinds of other songs that I thought I was too cool to like when I was a kid growing up in Des Moines. To me it was mom and dad music, the kind of thing that mothers would have playing at a low volume in the kitchen or a record fathers would spin on their stereo console whilst fixing a cocktail, as if that’s not the hippest thing a person can do. I thought I was too cool to like music like that, but I liked it anyway, just like I liked the theme from Midnight Cowboy and “Love is Blue” and all that other schmaltzy stuff that seemed to stem from a distant land.
In other words, I was down with more easy listening than I thought I was, and let me throw in one other song that by time I was ten years old was already haunting my imagination: “McArthur’s Park,” a lengthy Jimmy Webb composition on which the singer, Richard Harris, laments the fact that he left a cake out in the rain. That song stuck out because it was so damn dramatic, even for the late 1960s, which is saying something. And here’s the rather extraordinary thing about that and every other Jimmy Webb song I heard: even though by a young age I became quickly dubious when singers laid it on heavy, whenever I heard a Jimmy Webb song I always believed that the emotions behind it were genuine.
That, in turn, led me to believe that Jimmy Webb must be a super-serious kind of guy, and perhaps there’s been some truth to that. However, that impression led to mistaken assumption #2 of the concert: I expected the performer to be arch-serious, brooding, painfully introspective. In the one Jimmy Webb concert review I had ever read—and I skimmed at warp speed—the writer went on about the fact that while other singers had changed some of the lyrics to “McArthur Park” in order to tone down the wayward metaphors, Jimmy Webb hadn’t, and that was all I needed to read to expect an artiste to appear on stage that evening. A Keith Jarrett type, maybe, a tortured artist who took himself quite seriously.
Mistaken prediction #1 hit me upon entering the room where Jimmy Webb was going to perform. What I saw instead of folding chairs in a gym was a beautiful room with comfortable seats, great sightlines, an intimate feel, and a grand piano sitting on the stage. It was so nice that I wondered how many great concerts I had missed in that venue. Information about upcoming St Xavier shows appear as part of the Greater Cincinnati Performing Arts Society website and can be found at this link:
Before and after the opening act an emcee or two or three went on about what a great thing the music series was and all the discounts you could receive if you did this, that and the other. To their credit, the crowd managed to stay awake through all this, but I feared that, when it came time to introduce Jimmy Webb a speech would be given that would induce severe narcolepsy on the entire crowd. Something strange happened, though—about the time the speech was set to launch a lackey appeared from the behind the stage and told the emcee to hold on, and shortly thereafter the lackey reappeared to say, “He’s ready.” The emcee had about two seconds to speak before the lights dimmed and Jimmy Webb was standing behind the piano.
I think that happened by design—Jimmy Webb’s design. I think he found a way to make an abrupt entrance in order to kill the overkill that was bound to occur if the emcee had his way. That’s just conjecture, but there you have it.
Jimmy was dressed quite well that evening, in a dark suit, his long hair parted stylishly in the middle. He looked damn dapper for a man about retirement age. His first notes seemed tentative, like he wasn’t sure he wasn’t sure what he was going to play—either that or was testing out the piano. “This is my soundcheck,” he said a ways in (he still hadn’t sung anything yet). “Every piano has a distinct personality,” he added, and the way he said it made me wonder if this one had a personality that didn’t agree with him.
I don’t think Jimmy Webb hasn’t toured very much, and I suspect that very few people in that room had seen him before or knew what to expect. I don’t think many people had any idea that he was going to turn out to be such a character. It turns out he was quite the raconteur, with enough crazy life experiences that, were he to write an autobiography, would require several volumes. A tortured artist? Not nearly, at least not while on stage. Although the music he played was, for the most part, ultra-serious (the clearest exception was “Up, Up and Away” by the Fifth Dimension), he was a hoot and a howl. His Leonard Cohen imitation was hilarious, as were his drinking stories with, among others, Richard Harris (“Jimmy Webb, I want you to sleep in the bed where I was conceived,” Harris told him on one of their drinking nights).
He may have spent as much time telling stories as he did performing, and I welcomed that. I learned a lot about Jimmy Webb that night. I learned he was from Oklahoma, which surprised me at first, but the more I listened the more I suspected that the epic sweep that characterizes his music stems from the wide-open terrain of his home state. And for the first time I think it struck me just how out of key he was with the rest of the music world during the 1960s and early 1970s. It wasn’t just that he was a songwriter when the focus shifted to singer-songwriters; it was also his sound, and the lyrics that he wrote. Actually, if the 1960s hadn’t happened, I’m still not sure Jimmy Webb would have fit in. There’s something singular about the way he slings metaphors around and constructs his songs that I’m not sure that he ever would have reminded us of anybody else.
His performances that night could have been more polished, and I think it was a better concert because of that. It was as if the songs were under a microscope; you could tell how various parts were stitched together, and the intricacy of his compositions was more apparent with just piano and voice than with full orchestras, as on some recorded versions. Vocally Jimmy Webb is limited, but he has a nice voice and knows how to use it. When he sang “Galveston” and “Wichita Lineman,” I heard a master at work: a superb songwriter, a fine accompanist, and a singer who was able to put across the emotions with authority.