Jimmy Webb looked down from the piano on Saturday at WAMC’s The Linda, gazing intently at the rapt crowd, his brow wrinkled, intent on verifying that “Galveston” was hitting home.
Despite decades of radio play and huge hits (mostly by other singers), Webb didn’t coast or assume his tunes would work. He worked them, and they worked for him.
He launched his two-hour show with “Highwayman,” leading into a story of Waylon Jennings, who’d recorded it with Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. To deflate Webb, Jennings had feigned ignorance that the song won country music awards, asking “Which country?” Webb took this put-down as the structure of Saturday’s show, which had as much talk as tunes; just nine songs, even if counting a Motown Christmas song the Supremes recorded.
Early on, he concentrated on the country-pop songs that made his reputation through the hits he wrote for Glen Campbell, but the show ranged beyond that style to survey the many flavors, he called them countries, or traditions, he has brought to audiences over time. He delivered some songs more seriously than others, noting “Galveston” is a war protest song before a fervent rendition that plumbed its depths, and “That’s All I Know” had an aching tenderness. But he acknowledged “Up, Up and Away” is just about balloons.
He displayed playful but real umbrage about critics’ dismissing his songs as frivolous while extolling those of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. He monotoned Cohen’s “Suzanne” with lyrics begging for a new notes to demonstrate Cohen’s melodic limitations and noted it’s impossible to make out Dylan’s words. Webb’s range, melodic gift and concise lyric grace, in fact, qualify him for the pop pantheon alongside Burt Bacharach. If his talk has grown sharper since his last WAMC appearance (Saturday’s was his third), his singing has grown more wistful.
Introducing “Oklahoma Nights,” lead track on his “Just Across the River,” he recalled his father’s love of country music, name-checked Woody Guthrie and Ernest Tubb, and noted Vince Gill sang the duet vocal on “Nights.” He said Gill (a fellow Oklahoman) is “the greatest singer who ever lived” and that it took huge chutzpah to sing with Gill, noting he has a surplus of that.
He threw his head back for big belting effects, working repetitions and variations for all possible drama, and he sang around high notes no longer in his toolbox. At times he’d start on the edge of a note and slide to its full expression.
Paying tribute to Glen Campbell but complaining about Campbell’s altering his lyrics, Webb wryly sang one of Campbell’s distortions in “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” He got the crowd to harmonize in “The Worst That Can Happen” but carried the show home alone with “Didn’t We,” a hit for “Mr. Sinatra” — with a long, self-deprecating intro — and an encore of “Time Flies.”
Well, maybe so, but time hasn’t dented the melodic appeal and powerful candor of Webb’s tunes. His stories spanned the rock era back to an older form of show-biz pizzazz, proving he’s one of very few artists who has earned his place in both.