On a frigid snowy night in Buffalo, New York songwriting legend Jimmy Webb strolled onto the stage at The Tralf Music Hall, before an unpacked house of about 200, looking as anonymous as a Neil Diamond cover artist. He sat down at his grand piano and played “The Highwayman,” his composition made famous by country music super-group, The Highwaymen; Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson.
And that reminds him of a funny story. It’s the one about Waylon Jennings strolling off the set of the Dinah Shore show (Dinah!) in the 1970s. While taping the show with The Highwaymen and Webb, Waylon kept wandering off camera interacting with his fellow musicians while playing his guitar, much to the dismay of the camera crew who told him to keep still. Being the free-spirited outlaw he is, Jennings eventually wandered off camera, off stage, and right out of the building as the band played on.
The night was filled with as many stories as music. My favorite was of a drunken night in a London pub with the late Harry Nilsson. In a slip-tongued stupor Nilsson said to Webb, “Do you know what’s wrong with your music?” Webb said, “What?” Harry said, “It stinks.”
Be it modesty or insecurity, it seemed Webb felt the need to fill the night with the imagery of celebrities more luminous than himself. An anecdotal story with a famous name; Frank Sinatra, Richard Nixon, and Linda Ronstadt to name a few, followed nearly every song. A member of the elite class of songwriters who rose to fame within that perimeter (Burt Bacharach is another), Webb has been recording and performing his own music since 1970.
His list of song credits is astounding; “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” “Mac Arthur Park,” “Up, Up and Away,” and countless others including the movie score for the excellent Robert Redford/Robert Blake western Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here.
Big fat snowflakes could be seen piling up outside the windows as Webb warmed the room like a ski lodge fireplace with a 90-minute set that found him in strong voice (though his singing is not his strength) and fanciful strides on the piano. “Wichita Lineman” stirred the pot of nostalgic A.M. radio gold in a slow and almost religious interpretation, and “All I Know,” a hit for Art Garfunkel in 1973, was faintly recognizable as a Christian hymnal, a source Webb gains much of his inspiration from.
Perhaps the most musical moments of the evening came when Webb concluded several songs with an improvised, soft staccato on the piano, so quiet you could hear the snowflakes dropping. It was a fitting personal signature to the songs, and indeed to a wonderful career.