CHATHAM, NJ—Jimmy Webb has written some of the most indelible songs of our time. He has received nearly every honor that can be accorded to a songwriter, including numerous Grammy Awards. So it was fitting that an enthusiastic but attentive audience filled the chapel of the First Presbyterian Church for Webb’s appearance.
“When I started out, I was absolutely awful. I had no voice, I didn’t have a lot of stage presence and most of the (interpretive) intensity that I brought to the experience was actually terror,” Jimmy Webb once said. Things have changed. I have been going to his shows for many years, and I have seen him evolve into a consummate performer. Not only is his playing and singing now full of confidence, but he has developed a great skill as an entertaining storyteller between songs.
It was apparent that Webb was fighting off a cold on this night, and his songs are not easy to sing for a vocalist in the best of health. Still, he made no effort to shy away from the high notes, and the result was an attractive vulnerability that made his emotion-filled songs even more powerful. He continues to employ an improvisational style on piano, making each song a little different each time out, as he experiments with interesting new inversions while always retaining the basic melody.
The 14 song set found Webb tackling some of the biggest hits of his career, including the three song geographical trilogy of “By The Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Galveston” and “Wichita Lineman” that made Glen Campbell a star. He also played very personal versions of songs that were made popular by Frank Sinatra (“Didn’t We”), Linda Ronstadt (“The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress,” “Adios”), Johnny Rivers (“Do What You Gotta Do”), Art Garfunkel (“All I Know”), and The Fifth Dimension (“Up, Up And Away”). No Jimmy Webb show would be complete without a rendition of his biggest hit, “MacArthur Park,” and it closed his set prior to the encores.
There were also some rewards for longtime Webb- heads as he tackled less well known, but equally beautiful songs such as “No Signs Of Age” (written for Richard Harris) and “What Does A Woman See In A Man,” from Webb’s Suspending Disbelief album.
Throughout the evening Webb enthralled the audience with sometimes funny and often poignant stories of the artists with whom he has worked and befriended over the years. Webb, who is 61 years old and has been sober for seven years, was open about the days of the “evil” Jimmy, when he was drinking more than he should have. Particularly delightful were the stories of his drinking days with the late Richard Harris. But all of that is behind him now, and Webb is now clearly a man in full control of his life and art.
California-born, New York-based Sasha Dobson opened the show. A lovely voice and a handful of jazz and Latin tinged songs make her an artist to watch.
Sanctuary Concerts, led by Scott Sheldon, are now in their eighth season of presenting high quality acoustic music in this area. It is their third season in residence in Chatham after earlier stops in Watchung and Berkeley Heights.