By my reckoning it must be 16 or more years since I last enjoyed a Perth evening in the company of Jimmy Webb.
It would be a foolish writer who dared criticize the legendary songsmith in the face of tonight’s sold-out and utterly devoted audience.
Nevertheless a few changes noted this time, as indeed there were for the vast majority of the audience, a slightly more grizzled face, a thickened waistline. But we were not there to celebrate his appearance or indeed decry his inability to reach certain notes like the more famous interpreters of his songs. This audience was there to honour the incredible scale of his musical and lyrical output over more than 50 years.
Webb wooed the wildly partisan crowd from the outset declaring his fondness for Perth, then charming us with wonderful anecdotes of his rise from Oklahoma tractor driving boy to California-based song-writing prodigy.
He is an excellent raconteur with a wealth of interesting insights about artists who have recorded his songs. Not the least of which Glenn Campbell, who he was summoned to work with whilst in a youthful hippie phase when the right-leaning Campbell was playing golf with Bob Hope and supporting the Vietnam War. That they developed the strongest bond is attributed to the glue that music provided.
Webb’s transformation to a musical life at the age of 17 is the stuff of dreams. But while he is a master of amusing self-deprecatory tales his brilliance is evident, abetted by disciplined hard work.
The idea of working on a song all afternoon with only a key clue phrase, “Could you make it geographical?”, only to be interrupted by constant calls from the artist and agent. “Is it finished yet?” and then to deliver the marvellous Witchita Lineman defies belief.
Webb sent it off stamped "UNFINISHED" at the end of the day, only to discover Campbell had already recorded, as was, several days later.
While Webb’s storytelling, emotive lyrics are his signature they were enhanced by his bravura performance on the piano. One can only wonder at how he developed such creative breadth, both in arrangement and technique when he probably began his musical career playing hymns in his preacher father’s Baptist parish.
Inevitably MacArthur Park, which opened the door for him to work with a whole raft of new and different artists was allowed some anecdotal sometimes hilarious space. The ensuing rich, almost orchestral arrangement, drew rousing cheers and a standing ovation which lured Webb back onstage for funny reminiscences and a lovely version of the number he wrote for Frank Sinatra, Didn’t We.
Webb is blindingly talented but when not mid star anecdote I was delighted to see real glimpses of a sweet, slightly shy lad, amazed and disarmed by his sudden notoriety.
He shuffled offstage with our hearts in his pocket.
An Evening with Jimmy Webb
Venue: Heath Ledger Theatre, Perth
Date: 1 July 2017