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Still on the line: Jimmy Webb.

photo:Joe Putrock

Genius at Play
By John Brodeur

Jimmy Webb

WAMC Performing Arts Studio, Jan. 21

Everything about this show felt important. Like the Randy Newman concert a few years back at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Jimmy Webb’s debut Capital Region appearance was talked about in italics. “That kid Jimmy Webb,” as Frank Sinatra was fond of calling him, is a mastermind of emotive pop. He’s responsible for some of the great ballads of the modern era, each one of his timeless melodies capped by an aching, unforgettable crest note (the “oh no-o-o-o” on “MacArthur Park,” for example), and those melodies are paired with some of the most concise sentiments of longing and regret ever put to tape. Heartbreakers, every one of ’em. (Except, I guess, for “Up, Up and Away,” but he had to start somewhere.) Plus, he is not a man who performs with great frequency, so his appearances tend to take on event status. One fellow, I’m told, flew in from Germany for Saturday’s show. He got his money’s worth.

With a thoughtful pause, a raise of the right hand, and the rolling chords of “Highwayman,” Webb eased into a smartly balanced set in which there wasn’t a single dud. Not even close. There were selections from his remarkable collaboration with Glen Campbell (“Galveston,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman”), and brilliant, touching songs once recorded by great voices like Sinatra and Streisand (“Didn’t We”) and Rosemary Clooney (“Time Flies”). What an incredible catalog!

Webb not only showcased his wonderful words and music, but recalled memories of the many performers he worked with and befriended through the years. For the tremendous “No Signs of Age” (from last year’s Twilight of the Renegades), he remarked that the late British actor and recording artist Richard Harris had promised to record the song had the pair ever produced another album together. (It wouldn’t have been necessary—Webb’s own version soared.)

He reveled in the fact that “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress”—a song, he claimed, he would present to God if he had but one to represent his career—had been recorded by “renegades” Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Shawn Colvin, Linda Ronstadt, and (pause for effect) Joe Cocker. Funny, yes, but also a credit to the tremendous depth of his material.

The 59-year-old songwriter proved himself to be an ace at the keys as well, carefully choosing chord voicings and punching up the most sentimental lines with little knockout blows—an imitation of the “phone ringin’ off the wall” in the show-closing “Phoenix”; a hypnotic upper-register loop to finish “Wichita Lineman.”

Since the majority of Webb’s timeless melodies were made famous by other voices, it was fascinating to hear the craftsman revisiting his life’s work. His low tenor wavered from time to time—he joked about missing high notes throughout the night, really not as much of a concern as he made it out to be—but the feeling invested in each and every word was palpable, more real and true than any interpreter could do justice.

When he looked to the audience for assistance on those high notes, he found a group that was perfectly happy to lend a hand (or 20 dozen hands, as it were). On “Up, Up and Away,” the audience pitched in nicely with the closing vocal flourish; for the peculiar “P.F. Sloan,” Webb goaded the “churchgoing folk” in the audience to provide some three-part harmony, which they did, quite well. Give yourselves a round of applause, Albany. (You too, Germany!)

And give yourselves a round of applause for turning out in such great numbers—the room was sold to capacity well before showtime. Webb’s 80-minute set was all too short, but with such a warm reception, it would not be surprising to see him back on the WAMC schedule in the near future.

Saved by the Electric Guitar

Karla Bonoff

Berkshire Museum, Jan. 19

Semi-retired SoCal chanteuse Karla Bonoff led off the Berkshire Museum’s Originals in Song series to a nearly packed house, and unfortunately, it was a rather humdrum affair. Apparently Bonoff and her group weren’t having the greatest day. “We could have made it to South America in the time it took us to get here to Pittsfield” she announced at the top of the show, and longtime collaborator Kenny Edwards’ guitar got trashed on the flight earlier in what must have been a long, tedious day.

But hey, that’s showbiz, babe! And the show went on, with Bonoff singing an hour’s worth of midtempo or slow songs that were hits for her or for other folks like Bonnie Raitt and Linda Ronstadt, along with a couple of tunes that have been recorded by Bonoff’s terrific on-again, off-again vocal group Bryndle.

Bonoff didn’t do much but stand there and sing (or sit at the piano and sing), and certainly a good argument can be made that when one has a voice like hers, one doesn’t need to do much else. But this was one of those shows that actually improved by shutting one’s eyes and soaking up Bonoff’s luxuriant, expressive voice—the visuals, or lack of them, were just a distraction.

Many of Bonoff’s songs, at least as she sang them, sounded written, like you could sense the songwriter’s decisions, the bridge goes here, we need a different chord over there, with lyrics that tend to be overly literal and almost banal. And songs like this can be good, but they can’t be great. But when she’s at the top of her game, as with the song “Home” (recorded by Bonnie Raitt and Mary Black) or her classic “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me,” the songs and lyrics glow as if they’d written themselves, and she delivered them superbly.

Kenny Edwards was solid, even on a borrowed guitar, and his voice meshed perfectly with Bonoff’s, as it has regularly for the past 35 years.

But the real treat of the show, the thing that kept it from devolving into droll folkie hell, was electric guitarist Nina Gerber, whose incredible doodling and atmospherics grounded the material and added some much-needed counterpoint every inch of the way. Hunched over a Strat, with the whammy-bar always under her right hand, and her foot always on the volume pedal, Gerber tastefully propelled the songs and made little heroic statements every 10 seconds or so. She’s somebody very special.

—Paul Rapp

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