Jimmy Webb is one of the true greats of songwriting, one of those names who other writers will bring up when asked who they admire. He’s never had the public recognition he deserves, perhaps because his work straddles the border between easy-listening pop music and country ballads, possibly the two least-appreciated musical genres in existence, but when he is at his best, he produces music unlike anything else.
Unfortunately, Manchester seems to be a city that doesn’t know greatness when it hears it, as the RNCM was only half-full last night, with maybe two hundred people turning up for Webb’s one-man show, Still on the Line: The Glen Campbell Years. The small audience, though, didn’t stop Webb from giving his all in one of the best shows I’ve seen in years.
It’s important to note that this was a one-man show, not a solo gig. The two-hour performance was dominated by storytelling, with each song introduced by long anecdotes about Webb’s career and his relationship with his friend Glen Campbell, and he only performed eleven songs in full during the show — though he was sat at the piano throughout and broke into little sections of other people’s songs — everything from “Surf City” to “Southern Nights” to “Suzanne” — to illustrate parts of the anecdotes.
But this wasn’t just someone rambling — it was a properly structured, multimedia, show, with anecdotes illustrated by photos or video footage, including a wonderfully bizarre Chevy commercial Webb wrote and arranged for Campbell’s TV show — the first time they worked together:
During the two hours, Webb talked about listening to his transistor radio while ploughing the fields of his father’s farm (hearing “two girls for every boy” on “Surf City” and having to stop the tractor because that was what he’d always wanted), about writing “Honey Come Back” in his head while working cleaning tables in a restaurant and thinking that he’d invented the idea of the last word in one line being the first word in the next, about his Baptist preacher father threatening a radio station manager with a gun for not playlisting “Up, Up, and Away”… but above all about Glen Campbell.
Webb told the story of hearing Campbell’s early single “Turn Around, Look At Me” while still a teenager, and actually praying that one day he’d write a song half that good and have it sung by someone as good as Campbell. The details of the story may not be entirely true (he talked about hearing it on the radio right after “Surf City”, and “Surf City” came out two years later) but the feeling clearly was — one thing that came across in everything he said, even when talking about their political differences (Webb is left-wing, Campbell a hawkish hard-right Republican) is the immense respect he has for Campbell, not just as a singer but as a person.
It was moving, but also odd, to hear the way Webb talks about Campbell. For those who don’t know, Campbell is still, technically, alive — but he has Alzheimer’s so advanced that none of the person he was is still there, and can no longer speak, comprehend what others are saying, or recognise his closest friends. Webb talked about Campbell in the past tense a lot of the time, and sometimes seemed to catch himself and say “is” — and sometimes didn’t. A couple of the stories touched on Campbell’s illness, but for the most part the focus was on celebrating who he was, and his musicianship (Webb considers him one of only three truly great singers of his generation, the other two being Nilsson and Jack Jones), rather than who he is now.
Webb is not only a great songwriter, but one of the great *thinkers* about songwriting. His book Tunesmith is one I recommend to anyone who wants to do any kind of creative work, as it’s simply the best nuts-and-bolts guide to songwriting in existence, and maybe the only truly useful one.
What was obvious from the book is that this is not one of those people who’s just got one natural talent but no other real ability of note — he’s clearly someone who turned a great mind to the songwriting process, and who could have been equally successful in any other field to which he’d turned his mind (and if I were to have any criticism of him as a songwriter it’s perhaps just that — he’s a craftsman, and some of his work sounds crafted rather than inspired; there’s a feeling of conscious choice rather than necessity occasionally). And so it’s fascinating just to hear him talk — and it helps that he has a wonderful speaking style, with something of Garrison Keillor’s rural charm.
But the highlight of the show was, of course, the music. Webb has never been the greatest interpreter of his own music, but he has a stronger voice now than many of his surviving contemporaries, and is a much better pianist than I’d realised. Opening with a slow ballad version of “Galveston”, ending with a long piano coda (which he followed by playing a portion of Campbell’s recording, to show the immense difference in styles), he then played an instrumental version of “Amazing Grace”, as an example of the kind of thing he’d play for his dad’s church — before playing a long, semi-improvised, set of variations on it to show what he’d been taught about arrangement and harmonising by his piano teacher.
For “Honey Come Back”, Webb spoke-sang the verses and got us all to sing the choruses, and then on “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” he played to a backing track and video, creating an artificial duet with Campbell. He talked here about Campbell’s career as a session musician, and projected a list of his credits (mostly correct, a few where Campbell didn’t play on it but it’s an understandable mistake, and one that made no sense whatsoever — I don’t see how anyone could think Campbell played on anything by the Velvet Underground — but the list as a whole gave a reasonable impression of what kind of records Campbell played on.)
“Up, Up, And Away” followed, and then came “Wichita Lineman”, another duet with a video of Campbell.
“The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress” was a highlight of the show — one of Webb’s less well-known songs, but one of the best things he’s ever written (and far better than the Heinlein story from which it takes its title).
“Highwayman” came next, with a story about how Campbell had wanted to record the song, but that when he’d taken it to Capitol they’d played him “My Sharona” instead and tried to get him to do that.
Next came “Postcards From Paris”, which was the last Webb song Campbell ever recorded, as a bonus track for his final album.
The show proper ended with “Macarthur Park”, performed mostly solo by Webb, but segueing into footage of Campbell playing it on TV, playing one of the most astonishing guitar solos I’ve ever seen.
After a standing ovation, Webb performed “Time Flies”, one of his most beautiful ballads (from a musical he co-wrote with Ray Bradbury — one thing I’ve always noted about Webb is how much of a fan of literary science fiction he actually is, and how much of that comes across in odd places in his songs). That one is not associated with Campbell normally, but Webb talked about Rosemary Clooney’s performance of it, and how she had performed it when she guested on ER, playing an Alzheimer’s patient who couldn’t remember anything except songs. Apparently the last thing to go in Campbell’s own mind was the music, and he could remember songs long after he’d forgotten everything else.
After the show, Webb came out and did a signing and photo session (for free — not one of those “meet and greet” sessions where you pay two hundred pounds and don’t get to make eye contact), and was utterly charming with everyone, as he had been on stage. A performance like that — and an attitude like that — deserves a bigger audience than he got, and better promotion (there’s been basically no promotion of this tour anywhere that I’ve seen). He’s playing Dunfermline, Glasgow, Dublin, Bury St. Edmunds, and Milton Keynes over the next week and a half. If you can, go and see him.
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