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As the world turns Blackalicious

Wednesday, Feb 16 2000
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Performance

JIMMY WEBB at the Cinegrill, February 9

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To reflect upon the career of Jimmy Webb is to be amazed at the diversity of hit songs that can come out of one human (five in 1968-69 alone), and to hear him perform those hits is to be assured that the first human to sing them understands them better than the singers Webb helped make famous. Where Glen Campbell and his honeyed tenor got all maudlin on ”By the Time I Get to Phoenix,“ Webb tells in a wounded, gravelly baritone of an almost embarrassing emotional truth (who hasn’t basked in the imagined scene of an ingrate lover realizing this time it‘s for real?); where Richard Harris dripped histrionically on ”MacArthur Park,“ Webb is forceful and passionate (and, incidentally, leaves little doubt about the song’s significance, even if legions of fans remain puzzled by its literal meaning).

Alone at the piano, Webb puts back into his songs everything the pop artists took out to put them on the Top 40; interpreted his way, his tunes are messy, deep, rough and true. With a long brown ponytail trailing down his back, he squeezes his eyes shut and throws all his sentimental effort behind a phrase -- accuracy of note and pitch be damned -- and the payoff is rich indeed: Overplayed melodies reclaim their integrity; familiar lyrics emerge from cliche, and ”Wichita Lineman“ makes audiences tear up all over again -- even in an awkward medley package with other tunes Campbell sang to strings, including ”Galveston“ and ”Phoenix.“

”We were always on different sides of the political fence,“ Webb says of Campbell, with whom he‘ll team up for a New York show in May, ”but firmly astride the same musical fence.“ If that’s true, it‘s a long and winding fence, and he shares it with a lot of people. Having written songs for everyone from the Fifth Dimension (”Up, Up and Away“) to Art Garfunkel (”All I Know“), Webb -- who looks half-hippie, half-trucker, sings like Joe Cocker and bangs on the keyboard like Elton John -- can’t even be sure what genre he falls into. ”When I write for Waylon, I‘m likely to hit Amy Grant,“ he complains, ”that’s my accuracy rate.“ And while his late-‘80s ”The Highwayman“ won a Grammy for Best Country Song, ”I never understood what country they were talking about.“ Unless it’s just the country of solid, decent and inspired songwriting, neither do I. (Judith Lewis)

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