June 28, 2011
An evening with Jimmy Webb is a gift of the company of some of the greatest songs of the past half-century. It’s particularly poignant this week, with the sad news that Webb’s best known and favourite interpreter Glenn Campbell was rapidly losing his battle with Alzheimer’s Disease, and that his current tour would be his farewell.
Webb and Campbell played together for the last time only a fortnight ago, and it’s hard to think of one of them without the other.
After a sprightly opener by local performer and songwriter Nat Ripepi, Webb took us through a set that, while it contained only ten songs, covered the important points of his long career.
His told us his stories: of a young man nervously knocking on Frank Sinatra’s door with a handful of reel-to-reel tapes of songs; they became friends and Sinatra had a hit with Webb’s Didn’t We). Of reading about the split-up of Simon and Garfunkel on a plane and realising that the tall one with the high notes was going to need material in a hurry; Garfunkel recorded numerous Webb songs, including the world-wide hit All I Know.
They were fascinating glimpses into a songwriter’s life, art and business.
But, as he told us a little wistfully, “I’ve seen the pool of people that need my songs shrink until it’s not there any more. That’s why I’m out here singing my own – because I have to.”
And sing them he did, with his strained but evocative voice framed by his powerful piano playing, with its signature dark minor chords. The epic Highwayman, By the Time I Get to Phoenix, Witchita Lineman, his first hit Up, Up and Away, the gargantuan Macarthur Park and, best of all, the gorgeous, searing, anti-war classic Galveston.
There’s a hint of melancholy here; many of his great associations are past and gone – Sinatra, his roistering drinking buddy Richard Harris, now Campbell – while Webb, because he got so big so young, is still out plying his trade.
Still, he loves Australia and playing here – this is his seventh tour to this country – and it showed in his performance and personal warmth.
The really sad thing, though, was the paltry audience of just 100 in at the Fly By Night to see him. While the crowd made up for their lack of numbers with adoring enthusiasm, it suggests that either the show was very poorly promoted or, more ominously, the market for writers and performers of his era has dried up, even for someone as great as Jimmy Webb.
An edited version of this review appeared in The West Australian 28.6.11