London, Cadogan Hall – September 11th, 2016
A fairly bare stage; one man, a piano, and a video screen playing montages of a musical history and legacy of songs that anyone would envy.
This is Jimmy Webb, and whenever he plays a show, it’s something special. This is, after all, the man who has written some of the most important songs in American history. This tour – dubbed ‘Still on the Line’ – concentrates on telling the story of how Webb became synonymous with the legendary singer Glen Campbell.
It’s an engaging and highly emotional journey as Jimmy describes his upbringing at a farm in Oklahoma; his Baptist Priest father not standing in his way when the 17-year-old chose to stay in San Bernardino following the death of his mother. Webb’s determination and flair for song writing would soon take him to Motown, which, in turn, led to him penning hits for The 5th Dimension. The massive hit Up, Up, and Away would clean up at the Grammys in 1967. Playing the track, Webb jokes with the audience, “I can’t hit those notes anymore, you’re going to have to help…” This is no cheap ploy at audience participation, but instead a confident reassurance that the man whose words are known the world over is aware of his limitations. Jimmy tells us the story of how the song was almost banned from one of the biggest radio stations in the country, which would have meant commercial failure. The station just happened to be in his home town, and his father managed to persuade the station head to reverse the decision with the help of his bible – and his .45 revolver.
1967 was also the same year Campbell recorded a version of a song he had heard on the radio. It was Johnny Rivers release of By The Time I Get to Phoenix. That too won a raft of Emmys, and this was even before the pair had met. The professional (and personal) relationship they have shared in the forty plus years since then is clearly something to celebrate, and that’s exactly what this show does. We all know Campbell’s condition has deteriorated severely over the past few years – his 2013 Goodbye Tour being just that – but Webb never lets the proceedings become too sombre, even when we can see how painful some of the thoughts are. There are stifled tears throughout the audience, too as the tunes are played. Some are even accompanied by backing tracks the pair recorded for the album Just Across the River, with the great country singer appearing larger than life on the screen behind the songwriter.
The stories make up a large proportion of the evening – with just eleven songs being played in full – and Webb never shies away from bringing in a host of other famous names. In fact, had the audience been playing a drinking game during the show – taking a shot every time a name is dropped – they’d be as pickled as the man himself was during his days hanging out with the likes of Harry Nilsson during the ‘70s. But tales of hanging out in Elvis Presley’s room listening to Campbell’s Wichita Lineman album (the immortal title track is naturally played on the night) and the like are given an edge of ironic boasting.
Jimmy’s a very likeable chap, he knows he’s contributed so much to music, and Glen’s career, but still finds time to tip his hat to other songwriters and artists – and acknowledges Larry Weiss’ Rhinestone Cowboy as Campbell’s signature tune.
Although made more famous by other singers, Jimmy wouldn’t be able to leave the stage without playing MacArthur Park – even if, he jests, that ‘half of you don’t want to hear it’. Famously nonsensical in the chorus, it’s one of those songs that manages to hit the right spot each time it’s played (check out Dr John Cooper Clarke and Hugh Cornwell’s rendition on their new album). Performed stripped down, it’s a powerful love song, and tonight it comes alive with a pre-recorded break from Campbell. Anyone who has ever dismissed Glen as a mere country and western singer needs to witness the footage of him shredding this amazing guitar solo.
It’s clear everyone in the audience is thinking of Campbell, and although there are a few damp eyes now and again, everyone leaves feeling they have celebrated the charmed life of an immensely gifted musician and the man who so often put the words in his mouth and chords on his guitar. A beautiful, if occasionally bittersweet, evening that proved the life-affirming nature of great songs and amazing talent.
Setlist: Galveston/Honey Come Back/By The Time I Get To Phoenix/Up Up and Away/Wichita Lineman/The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress/Highwayman/Postcards From Paris/MacArthur Park/Time Flies.
Find Jimmy Webb on the Internet: http://www.jimmywebb.com/