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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Jimmy Webb Sings His Songs at Cinegrill

February 11, 1988|DON HECKMAN

What makes Jimmy Webb run? What makes one of the most accomplished songwriters of the last two decades so determined to chase the ephemeral illusion of success as a performer?

With songs prominent on new recordings by Amy Grant, Glenn Campbell, Toto, Patti Austin and Joan Baez, with a musical--"The Children's Crusade"--and a "Dandelion Wine" collaboration with Ray Bradbury in the works, it's hard to imagine how Webb can find the time, much less the inclination, to attempt a revival of the solo career that sputtered in fits and starts in the early '70s.

Opening a two-week run at the Cinegrill on Tuesday night--on the heels of a similar New York stand that marked the often limelight-shy composer's return to live performances after a 10-year absence--Webb was as boyishly charming as ever. His sweet, Paul McCartney-ish good looks have barely changed in the two decades since "MacArthur Park" and "Up, Up and Away," and his between-song raps were humorous and unassuming. The father of five boys, he still looks like the kind of guy you'd be happy to see show up for a date with your daughter.

But likableness is no substitute for skill, and Webb was born to be a songwriter, not a singer. And that's unfortunate, since it is undeniably fascinating to hear any songwriter singing his own songs--especially songs that have been so widely performed by other artists. Sadly, Webb is the exception. He is not one of those composers who provide new illumination of their material via their own performance.

Opening with "Wichita Lineman" and "Up, Up and Away," Webb pushed his limited range--especially on the latter song--with uncomfortable results. He was better on "The Moon's a Harsh Mistress" until he reached the bridge, when he was once again obliged to virtually shout, rather than sing the melody.

"In My Kangaroo Tennis Shoes," a new song from the "Dandelion Wine" project, was delightful--a promising expansion of Webb's compositional territory. But, again, the performance was a problem. One could only wonder how the song would sound in the hands of a singer who could respond to its richly playful qualities.

On "Campo de Encino," an early '70s song chronicling Webb's residence in the San Fernando Valley, Webb came as close as he ever does to being humorous, although most of the references were well past the point of topicality.

He wrapped up his set with more hits--1985's Grammy Award-winning "The Highwaymen," "All I Know" (which was Art Garfunkel's first solo Top 10 single), "Didn't We" and, inevitably, a full-blown excursion through "MacArthur Park."

Curiously, Webb's best moment of the evening came during the closing song, a strikingly understated, but emotionally rich piece from the "Children's Crusade" titled "Only One Life." Dedicated to the late choreographer Michael Bennett, who suggested the show concept to him, it provided Webb with the perfect vehicle for a rare moment in which the songwriter finally became the right performer for the song.

Webb continues at the Cinegrill tonight through Saturday and Feb. 18-20.

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