Saturday, June 25, 2011




Dunstan Playhouse

Friday June 25

William Shakespeare was an amazing writer. His work will live for all eternity. His body of work captures the human condition, defines drama intent and touches something in people that will always be there to be touched in the same way. However, I doubt that Shakey would have been much chop as an actor, or much use in the James Cameron 50 million dollar big screen version of Hamlet. It doesn’t make him any less of a writer.

So, it has to be said that Jimmy Webb has written some amazing songs. Iconic songs. Timeless songs. Songs that will always be considered classics. Songs that have been sung and interpreted by everybody. From Frank Sinatra, the Fifth Dimension, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Barbara Streisand, and Tom Jones have all sung his songs. He tells amazing stories in his these songs. His turn of phrase, his attention to the minutiae of a relationship or break up, his sense of longing and melancholy. He is a fantastic songwriter.

However Jimmy Webb isn’t a fantastic singer. All of these many timeless, classic songs were hits with somebody else at the microphone. Galveston, By the Time I Get to Phoenix, Honey Come Back and Wichita Lineman are all amongst my most favourite songs. This is true, but it’s only true when Glen Campbell singing them. I have lots of versions of these songs. Wichita Lineman in particular I have two 90 minute cassettes full of versions of this emotive classic from 1968. My hilariously titled Wichita LineMEN compilation has almost sixty versions of this Webb song, with rock, disco, ska, heavy metal and country versions. So I know these songs can be presented in different ways and in different voices and still be moving and affecting.

Whilst there is something nice about being in the presence of the creator of these songs that have had long and robust lives, the reality is that as a singer, Webb is an exceptional songwriter.

He appears on stage and takes his seat at the simply lit grand piano and starts singing Highwayman. A hit single in 1982 for the supergroup consisting of four of the most distinctive voices of country music; Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. The lyrics depict four different types of outlaw from an old west robber to a spaceship captain on an ethereal quest. I love this song.

I was a dam builder across the river deep and wide
Where steel and water did collide
A place called Boulder on the wild Colorado
I slipped and fell into the wet concrete below
They buried me in that great tomb that knows no sound
But I am still around. I'll always be around

It has four haunting vignettes sung by deceased characters in the lyric, but tonight in the hands of it’s creator it lacks any weight at all. It quickly becomes apparent that he considers himself more of a virtuoso singer than he actually is. The reaching for unnecessary notes out of his range is clumsy and distracting. His voice is okay when singing in middle register but some of those high notes and attempts vocal gymnastics fall way short of the mark.

“It’s nice to be back in the South” he jokes. Turns out he is extremely likable on stage. He sings Galveston and while the Glen Campbell version has some astounding high parts that Campbell fills with longing and emotion, tonight it is strained. And so it goes. All I Know, written for Art Garfunkels first solo album after his split from Paul Simon, is preceded by a funny story about how that collaboration came to pass. He does Up Up & Away, a massive hit for the Fifth Dimension in 1967, a 60’s classic characterized by the gorgeous layers of harmonies, sadly missing this evening. He asks if we know Judy Collins, a sixties contemporary of Joan Baez and Dylan. Judging by the response most in this audience had not. But it doesn’t prevent him telling a quite long story to introduce The Moon & the Harsh Business. His stories are great and far and away the most enjoyable part of the show. But they go on far too long. Especially as this evening is only an hour long, the stories get longer and longer with a detailed story about his first meeting with Frank Sinatra runs over ten minutes. It’s a good story but after he sings Didn’t We, he takes his bows and leaves the stage.

He has sung six songs.

He returns, stopping to sign an album for somebody in the front row, then continues a story about Richard Harris we had started earlier. It is leading to MacArthur Park, which the Irish actor had an unlikely worldwide hit single with in 1968. With it’s grandiose almost operatic arrangement and bizarre lyrics about someone leaving a cake out in the rain (“I don’t think that I can take, It took so long to bake it and I’ll never have that recipe again, oh no”) one of the strangest chart toppers of all time. Often regarded as a metaphor for drugs it is actually a quite touching look at the loss of someone very close. The revisiting old haunts and trawling through the detail of the life with the one you are missing so desperately. There have been many versions of it, including Donna Summer’s disco-fied version in 1978, but few have left me as unmoved as its writers tuneless rendition tonight. He leans right back away from the microphone looking like he is actually physically reaching for the notes that are out of his reach.

Given the brief length of the show seven songs seems a pretty light amount of songs to do. However not getting to Wichita Lineman or By the Time I Get to Phoenix may have been a blessing in some ways.

Ian Bell



All I Know

Up Up & Away

The Moon is a Harsh Business

Sinatra story

Didn’t We

MacArthur Park

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