By Mack White
An almost packed auditorium, a single spotlight, and a piano were all Jimmy Webb needed to put on his performance on March 14. For an hour and a half, the singer- songwriter could do no wrong. Webb, 66, is renowned for writing compositions such as Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, but Webb did not hesitate to enlighten the crowd with some of his new material as well. Webb opened his anecdote-filled performance with a story about writing a song for country music legend Waylon Jennings.
In 1986, Webb came home to find Jennings drunk on the couch, telling Jennings, “I won the Grammy for Country Song of the Year!” to which Jennings retorted, “Which country is it from?” His set list opened with a spellbinding performance of the previously mentioned song, “Highwayman”. Webb attacked the piano, striking each note and complementing it beautifully with his rugged voice. Songwriting was a major point in the tales Webb told, even saying that he got into songwriting through “a childish prayer to God”. He discussed his process for writing songs in the ‘60s, involving stealing some parts from songs he learned in church.
The hits continued a lively performance of “Galveston”, as made famous by Glen Campbell. Webb put a unique touch on the performance by extending the song an extra few minutes to play part of the song in Morse code on the piano. He told the crowd that the message could be deciphered to say “I need beer immediately”, later saying proudly that he had not had a sip of alcohol in 13 years. Webb’s creatively was shown in full when a booming train passed right by Whitley and Webb said, “I wish I had a song to play about a train.” No less than five seconds later, Webb improvised a song about trains that garnered a standing ovation from the audience. “I always feel comfortable around trains,” he said. “It reminds me of my days in Oklahoma.”
The crowd did not hold back as Webb played the song he wrote the Fifth Dimension, “Up-Up and Away”. Encouraging the crowd to sing along with him, Webb stopped playing halfway through the song, saying, “I can’t hit those notes like I used to!” The audience roared with laughter, giving Webb a second to pause and continue his performance. James Crooks, ’16, said, “As a Music Technology major, it was impressive how under-produced the show was. The fact that he could entertain the whole audience using one instrument exhibits how powerful he is as a musician.” The crowd opened with applause as they recognized the piano riff of Webb’s composition “Witchita Lineman”.
Despite not having the ability to match country croon voice of Campbell, Webb belted out the chorus, making it irresistible not sing with him. Elaborating on his canon of musician friends, Webb nearly brought the crowd to tears when he told us that he found out Linda Ronstadt would have to “retire from songwriting indefinitely” due to a rare medical condition. He didn’t say much about her after that, but ended with an incredibly engaging rendition of the song he wrote for her, “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress”. Marty Lucero, ’16, was in the line after the show to buy a copy of Webb’s latest album and said, “I had never heard of Jimmy Webb, but the show was one of the best I’d ever seen. He was more lively than any of the younger performers I’ve seen.”
I had the chance to talk with Webb after the show and he said that he loves coming to college campuses to play because it allows him to “bring the songs that inspired him to a new group of people to be inspired by”. Webb brought new life to his classic songs and demonstrated how essential songwriting is to the musical performance. The was not a dull moment during his concert, and was impossible to look away and miss a second of the musical legend’s daring performance.