A hazardous snowstorm had stunted the typical Friday night Chicago traffic. Drivers were now engaging in a slow crawl. But little by little fans stumbled into the Old Town School, stomping snow off their boots, anxious to see Jimmy Webb.

Getting there was a challenge. One man drove two hours from the suburbs through the blinding drifts and two close female friends admitted that they hoped the weather would calm; they would also be catching Jimmy’s next act in Cincinnati.

Already seated, I caught a glimpse of a tall, well-built man with silver-tinged hair whisk past the open door of the auditorium. The door slammed shut, and moments later an announcement was made that tonight’s entertainers had arrived and were safely settled in the building.

Immediately after the opening act, Jimmy steps foot onto the intimate stage. The audience breaks into wild applause. Normally there would be an introduction, but the sense is that time is tight. Jimmy comments that the taxi ride to the venue took longer than expected, and, panning all of our faces, he says that we should congratulate each other on having gotten to the concert at all.

The tall-distinguished singer/songwriter/composer is dressed in a stylish black suit.His low voice has a familiar fatherly quality and is immediately likeable.

“I didn’t expect many to come. We were sliding all over the place,” he says.
He breaks into a humorous story about his colleague Waylon Jennings, stops, and says, I don’t know how much talking you’ll tolerate.” As it turns out, his ad libbed monologues were as appreciated as his rendering of songs.

Jimmy loves getting to know his audiences, and he is a natural showman. On stage he shows a tremendous confidence and his dry, deadpan humour is coloured with a generous outright display of respect for his many friends, in and out of the business.

‘Oklahoma Nights’ from his 'Just Across the River' CD, simmers with duets between Jimmy and other epic songwriters like Billy Joel and Lucinda Williams, but he sings the song solo tonight, and. like many of his hits, this one is catchy and well constructed. As the evening progresses, anecdotes about his early upbringing in Oklahoma and his early days as a songwriter-for-hire serve as intermezzos; like tasty finger sandwiches meant to refresh the palette before the next entree, but soon the lines between the famous folks and the more personal allies blur.

Some of the anecdotes feature characters like the Irish actor Richard Harris, who enjoys getting Webb drunk while overlooking stark surroundings. He has worked with the gentle-voiced Art Garfunkel, but his other stories are just as colourful, like the ones about his octogenarian father, a no-nonsense Baptist minister and former Marine.

He pops out a hymn here and there, like ‘Amazing Grace’, as he chronicles his early years sitting in the pews waiting for his dad’s lengthy sermons to end. And as he combs the keys of the black baby grand, simple melodies magically turn into harmonic tsunamis. Once in a while he brushes one hand against those keys by way of a dramatic glissando without fanfare, much like a card shark would deal out a crisp, fresh deck.

From time to time, he pokes good-natured fun at a few of his songwriting peers. He does a great “Leonard Cohen” and attempts to demystify Dylan. But he shifts gears to perform, ‘Up Up and Away’, which was a hit for the Fifth Dimension and won a 1967 Grammy.

The fired up audience gets a chance to sing along with a legend. In a commanding voice Jimmy assigns parts like a military commandante. It’s obvious the fans come from way back, as nobody noticeably fumbles with the lyrics.

We get a break from our own rusty pipes when we hear, ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix,’ a song Glen Campbell first put on the map. Though everybody here has probably heard the various cover versions, it is especially delightful to watch the master luxuriate over the keys, adding his own flourishes and mini-modulations, conveying wistful heartache as he croons the simple melodic line.

He crams in a dark Irish melody and the wheels start to turn. Jimmy Webb’s musical interests are so diverse that in every arrangement a wealth of textures collide. As he plays ‘All I Know’, his voice evokes almost a childlike loveliness. ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress’ is less well known, but flows like liquid poetry.

An unexpected Christmas song makes its way into the set, after which he reminisces about past relationships in the world of music, groups that have clung fastidiously to each other then, as opposed to some of the shallow behaviors he sees currently.

There is some more singing along before the legendary build up to ‘MacArthur Park’. As he tackles the rigorous rhythms of that more than seven-minute epic, you can hear the ghosts of Gershwin embedded in the changes.

Throughout the concert, I silently yearned for my favourite. And, after an extended, standing ovation, I got my wish. Jimmy played a mournful, sombre ‘Wichita Lineman,’ a lyrical ode to the often-unsung workingman.

Afterwards the fans stood patiently in line waiting to get CDs signed and photos taken. Jimmy Webb stepped aside to hear some of their stories. He looked like a happy man.











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