Jimmy Webb is a living legend as one of the great songwriters of the modern era. The average Joe probably wouldn’t recognize him if they passed him on the street but if they heard a chorus of one of his songs, I’m sure the melodic recall would be instantaneous. A frequent visitor to our shores, Webb has built friendships within our music community and tonight’s show was all about the songs as interpreted by these friends. The show began with an introduction by his wife Laura Savini Webb who was joined onstage by Philharmonia Australia, a mini orchestra led by conductor Vanessa Scammell, as Jimmy made his way to his seat at the piano. It was explained that the artists performing this evening were all fans who had specifically chosen songs that meant something to them personally.
The first performer to join Webb onstage was David Campbell with a rendition of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, originally made famous by Joe Cocker and later by Glenn Campbell, Judy Collins, Joan Baez and Linda Ronstadt among others. Australia’s own Jeannie Lewis recorded a version apparently too although I’m yet to hear it! David Campbell tackled this song effortlessly and it actually sounded as if this song was specifically written for him. This is the common theme running through most of Webb’s songs – they were made to be interpreted by great singers. Next up was Kate Ceberano with If These Old Walls Could Speak. What a powerhouse she is; I think her voice gets better every time I hear her sing and songs like this one of Webb’s fit her like a glove. As Webb joined her on the harmony vocal midway through the song it became apparent that there is a lot of the songwriter in the song. His emotive piano playing and the feeling behind his voice was powerful.
Webb is a great storyteller and although he’s not a virtuoso lead vocalist, he certainly knows how to write for one. He regaled us with stories of growing up in Elk City Oklahoma and what it was to be the son of a Baptist Preacher who was also a Marine. He learnt piano at the age of 6 and it was then that his mother signed him up for his first contract – a practice contract where he would practice for an hour a day and in return she wouldn’t hit him with a stick! As the 4-piece band joined him and the orchestra on stage, Webb rolled out some solo tracks that he felt reflected his upbringing and gave “a sense of where the tree grew and why it grew the way it did”. Worst That Could Happen, a song he wrote at the age of 19 after his girlfriend dumped him to marry someone else, was a hit for Johnny Maestro and the Brooklyn Bridge after previously being recorded by The 5th Dimension, one of the many examples of Webb’s ability to take an anecdotal tale and turn it into a 3 minute epic full of imagery and emotional twists and turns.
I never really thought of David Campbell and Glen Campbell being similar in style but as pointed out by Jimmy Webb this evening, they both are known for having a 5 octave vocal range which was showcased by the former on his stirring rendition of Where’s The Playground Susie? I never really thought of Cold Chisel’s Ian Moss as being anything other than a rocker who let his Stratocaster guitar do most of the singing for him but his version of Didn’t We? was right up there with Old Blue Eyes himself in the crooners department. Actor Richard Harris also recorded this song as a B-side to Macarthur Park, a smash hit from his 1968 album that was produced by Webb on Dunhill Records.
[pullquote]The standout highlights of the evening were Ian Moss’s version of By The Time I Get To Phoenix and Kate Ceberano’s take on Macarthur Park.[/pullquote] According to Jimmy Barnes, whose younger son Jackie was on drums for the evening, he was first in line to choose his favourite Webb compositions to perform this evening. The agenda was set in motion at a dinner the two Jimmys shared in New York City some weeks ago. It must have been some dinner because Barnes’ chosen songs for the evening were the cream of the Webb crop in Galveston and Wichita Lineman. While Barnes would be the first to admit he’s no Glen Campbell when it comes to range and melodic delivery, he certainly performed these songs with a passion and a connection that conveyed the love and awe he held for them.
Ed Keupper performed an edgy version of The Hive to kick off the second half of the show, another song made famous by Richard Harris before hamming it up with Jimmy Barnes on Honey Come Back, bringing a touch of Las Vegas lounge music into the evening. Interestingly enough, Barnes’ rendition of a totally new Webb composition was probably his best performance of the night and I attribute this to the fact that it was my first time hearing it thus removing the ability to mentally compare it to a previous, classic version. It actually sounded as though this song was tailor made for Barnes, in fact and I hope he records it in the future. The pairing of David Campbell and Kate Ceberano on All I Know, a song that was made famous by Art Garfunkel on his debut solo album, was vocally sublime in the way they harmonised. The blend of their voices was up there with Lionel Richie and Diana Ross and their chemistry as performers didn’t go unnoticed.
The standout highlights of the evening were Ian Moss’s version of By The Time I Get To Phoenix and Kate Ceberano’s take on Macarthur Park. It was strange to see Mossy without a guitar in a suit coat with the cuffs rolled up just so, but once he began to sing I was totally sold on this rarely seen side of him, again highlighting the fact that a great song can take on many lives very convincingly. Ceberano smashed Macarthur Park and almost raised the roof of Hamer Hall by the time she had done with it. Such a spirited and passionate vocal performance, together with a ripping guitar solo from Ian Moss, made it undoubtedly a contender for the best ever performance of that song to date, something that I’m sure was not lost on Jimmy Webb. There was almost an audible gasp from the audience when Jimmy and his “Webettes” consisting of Campbell, Barnes and Ceberano, launched into Beautiful Balloon as I’m sure many of them had not made the connection between the songwriter and the song before.
Part of Webb’s charm is that he doesn’t appear to take himself too seriously and that he acknowledges the good fortune that music has brought to his life. Recalling a conversation he had with Waylon Jennings shortly after being awarded a Grammy for country song of the year for his song The Highwayman, upon telling him of the accolade, Waylon asked “Which country?”. The last line of the song was hopefully a promise to the audience when he sang “I’ll be back again”.