Jimmy Webb looked surprised as I approached him holding out my driver’s license backstage at WAMC a few years ago. It was a New York license like his own — he lives on Long Island. He took it from me and gamely looked where I pointed at the date of birth: Aug. 15, 1946 — the same as his. He grinned and shook my hand and we talked for a few minutes before well-wishers and autograph seekers filed in with new CDs or old, well-worn vinyl albums to sign.
Webb was a happy singer that night, though he often spoke during the show of how much better other singers had sung his songs. It would have been a treat to hear those songs in the voice of their writer, even if he’d sung them badly, but he didn’t.
It seemed he was less interested in reclaiming the songs he’d written as his own by singing them that night, however wobbly his voice might have been at times, than he was in placing them in a personal context no other singer could replicate. Webb proved a wonderful storyteller, recounting experiences available only to the top songwriter of the post-Beatles era, wielding self-deprecating charm and a writer’s eye for gem-like details.
He also talked about future plans, including a Broadway production still in the works; but he didn’t mention “Just Across the River,” his guest-studded new retrospective album. He evidently hadn’t started planning it yet.
I heard about it from my brother Jim, who excitedly reported some months ago that he had played on it. The credits list Jim, one of many Nashville cats on the album, as playing jaw harp, steel guitar, pennywhistle and accordion; so I was excited to hear it.
I emailed Webb’s publicist about the dressing room encounter, mentioned that Jim plays on the album and asked if that was enough leverage for her to send me a copy. She said, sure, and did — and it felt like a birthday gift when it reached me.
The album is great because the songs all are; though many are done differently here than the way we have all heard them a million times on the radio. It’s musically and emotionally true and really quite beautiful. Webb sings most of the songs as duets, and the list of guest singers is astounding. Everybody clearly loves the tunes and sings and plays them so well it would be unfair to single out any.
Well, maybe not — Lucinda Williams sings fantastically well on “Galveston,” Webb invites Glen Campbell back on “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” (one of the first bit hits Webb wrote for Campbell) and the two old pals manage to refresh it, and Linda Ronstadt, reportedly emerging from retirement just for this album, gives a wonderfully tender reading with Webb on “All I Know.” Webb sings better now than he did at WAMC.
“Those guys came up with some very nice arrangements,” Jim said after he heard “Just Across the River” for the first time. “What a thrill and honor to be in such great company.”
MUSIC HAVEN SWAN SONG
Music Haven bookends its season with its two loudest, biggest bands of the summer. Alex Torres and his Latin Orchestra opened this free series last month, and the Slavic Soul Party rocks the place on Sunday to wrap up the season.
The credits on SSP’s new album “Taketron” lists two drummers — one each from Cuba and Japan — a Balkan Gypsy accordionist and heaps of horn players, including four trombonists. They may play at that strength at Barbes in Brooklyn on their regular Tuesday night residency, but the out-of-town version of the band may be smaller, only nine pieces or so. SSP learned its residency strategy from the Rebirth Brass Band, which has rocked the Maple Leaf Bar in New Orleans every Tuesday since 1991.
And that’s not all SSP learned from Rebirth: They laminate their Balkan melodies atop New Orleans Second Line beats in a cross-cultural whirlwind. Show time is 7 p.m. Phone 382-5152 ext. 3 (Central Park headquarters), 372-5656 (the Chamber of Schenectady County) or visit www.musichavenstage.org.
George Porter Jr. and his band the Runnin’ Pardners cruise from the Crescent City into the Bearsville Theater (291 Tinker St., Woodstock) on Friday. Porter played with the Meters, perhaps New Orleans’ finest funk band before the Neville Brothers formed in the mid-1970s. Art Neville also played with the Meters and has played in various reunion lineups that have hit the road since the original quartet broke up in 1977, including a tremendous show at Gathering of the Vibes in Mariaville.
The Runnin’ Pardners feature guitarist Brint Anderson (a member for 19 years), keyboardist Mike Lemmler (aboard for 14 years), and two youngbloods: 24-year-old saxophonist and keyboard player Khris Royal and 23-year-old drummer Terrance Houston. Rennie Cantine opens the show at 9 p.m. Tickets are $20. Phone 845-679-4406 or visit www.bearsvilletheater.com.
Reach Gazette Columnist Michael Hochanadel at [email protected]