by Ian Mann
April 14, 2015
Ian Mann on American songwriter Jimmy Webb's career retrospective plus a triumphant support slot by the UK's own Deborah Rose.
Jimmy Webb / Deborah Rose, Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury, 12/04/2015.
Singer, songwriter and guitarist Deborah Rose has been a regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages for nearly five years. Based in Worcestershire she has performed frequently in my local area and is a great organiser and facilitator as well as being a significant musical talent.
Although not a jazz singer per se Rose’s love of poetry and song transcends musical boundaries and her material covers many bases including folk, jazz, pop and classical. She writes high quality original songs and her choice of outside material is often quite inspired. Rose knows a good song when she hears one.
The most striking thing about Deborah Rose is the stunning purity of her voice, a surprisingly versatile instrument that works effectively across a range of material. Rose’s first full length album “Song Be My Soul” (2014) included settings of the words of the Victorian Romantic poets and other literary figures alongside a clutch of excellent original songs and a selection of inspired covers. The more recent “Wilde Wood” represented a total contrast with its good humoured exploration of traditional Celtic and American folk songs.
Rose is a consistently excellent live performer and I have witnessed many of her appearances over the years. In the best jazz tradition no two shows have been exactly alike and I have seen her sing and play with a variety of accompanists. Her work has attracted the attention of many celebrity admirers including American folk doyenne Judy Collins, New York based singer/songwriter Kenny White and Led Zeppelin legend Robert Plant who contributed backing vocals to the “Wilde Wood” album and was also present in the audience for tonight’s performance.
The invitation to support the great American songwriter Jimmy Webb on the British leg of his European tour represented a considerable “feather in the cap” for Rose and a great opportunity to broaden her audience. I’m grateful to Deborah for arranging for me to cover this show at Shrewsbury’s comfortable and impressive Theatre Severn. This was my first visit to the venue despite my frequent visits to the town to cover shows in other performance spaces including The Hive and Gateway Arts Centres, Shrewsbury Coffeehouse, and the Maidment Auditorium at Shrewsbury School. Back in the day I also recall attending rock gigs at the Market Hall and in the cellars of the Buttermarket.
Taking my seat I was delighted to hear the strains of Tom Waits’ landmark “Swordfishtrombones” album coming over the theatre’s PA system. It promised to be a good night. Deborah Rose took to the stage alone armed with her acoustic guitar and proceeded to perform a beautiful version of “The Rose”, a song written by Amanda McBroom that was inspired by Janis Joplin and became a hit for Bette Midler. The version on “Song Be My Soul” features Rose backed by a male voice choir so to hear it performed so intimately here made for a nice contrast.
Rose then welcomed to the stage Pat West, a young Twickenham based session musician who performed on a variety of instruments including acoustic, electric and lap steel guitars plus cittern.
He took over on acoustic guitar as Rose sang “Taigh Alainn”, one of her most enduring original songs and a fixture in every Deborah Rose live performance. The title is the Scots Gaelic for “House Beautiful” and the lyrics are a meditation on the beauty of the Hebridean landscape and the virtues of tranquillity and (in a good way) isolation. The song also has a beautiful and memorable melody that just “gets you” every time you listen to it.
The musicians were playing in front of a multi starred backdrop, “it’s like being in space!” commented Rose. It reminded me of the Oysterband lyric “the sky was a net of diamonds, and the moon a washed-up bone”, a line Jimmy Webb himself would probably be proud to have written. However I digress as Rose’s choice of song for this setting was a lovely rendition of Heather Nova’s “Milky Way” with her flawless singing shadowed by West’s delicately picked acoustic guitar.
The traditional Appalachian song “Cuckoo” appears on “Wilde Wood”, a deceptively cheery sounding song that is actually a murder ballad. The recorded version features the banjo playing of Jim Allen , replaced here by West’s cittern.
The set included two linked pieces from “Song Be My Soul”. “The Lady Of Shallot” is an original by Rose and pianist Ian King that takes its inspiration from both the poem by Tennyson and the painting by J.W. Waterhouse. Again it features one of Rose’s most memorable melodies and the piece is another staple item in her repertoire. Once more it was beautifully sung with West’s delicately nuanced electric guitar lines twining around the vocal.
“The First Day” was a wistful setting of the words of Christina Rosetti with Rose’s yearning vocal complemented by the gently keening and shimmering sound of West’s lap steel guitar.
West moved back to cittern for “Love Will Find A Way” and his rhythmic drive on the instrument coupled with a soaring Rose vocal briefly reminded me of the acoustic excursions of Led Zeppelin, a feeling no doubt inspired by the presence of Mr. Plant in the house.
Rose and West concluded an excellent opening set with Deborah’s version of the jazz standard “Autumn Leaves”, her interpretation inspired by the version recorded by the late Eva Cassidy. Delivered in a non jazz style and encompassing both folk and pop Rose’s tender rendition brought out the real beauty and poignancy of the lyrics, her voice subtly shadowed by West’s subtle electric guitar shadings.
The duo were very well received by a Shrewsbury audience primarily there to see Jimmy Webb and during the interval sales of Rose’s CDS were brisk. It’s a pattern that has been repeated all over the country with the dates at the City Varieties Music Hall in Leeds and The Stables in Wavendon being particularly lucrative in terms of sales.
The Jimmy Webb tour has represented a tremendous opportunity for Deborah Rose and she has grabbed it with both hands. The quality of both her singing and her songs have held great appeal to the fans of Jimmy Webb, already devotees of the art of song writing, and the tour has seen Rose playing to large audiences and considerably expanding her growing fan base. Congratulations Deborah, as one who has consistently championed your music it was pleasing to see you perform so well and so successfully. And well done to Pat West too!
Taking to the stage and seating himself at the grand piano a suited Jimmy Webb paid tribute to Deborah Rose and particularly the sheer quality of her voice, “the singing stops now!” he joked.
And to a degree he was right, Jimmy Webb is primarily a songwriter, a craftsman who has penned a series of classic songs but doesn’t possess the vocal cords to do them justice.
Webb is probably best known for “Wichita Lineman”, By The Time I Get To Phoenix” and “Galveston”, the trio of hits that he wrote for Glen Campbell. Campbell’s voice plus the magnificent arrangements meant that these tales of the American heartland captured the imagination of listeners all over the world, even those like me who don’t really like what could loosely be termed “country music”.
Webb’s current tour is subtitled “An evening of songs and stories” and his performance tonight mixed performances of some of his most famous songs together with rambling anecdotes about his time in the music business, the tales peppered with famous names including Campbell, Richard Harris, Waylon Jennings, Art Garfunkel, Joe Cocker and others. Webb is something of a raconteur and his fans lapped up his showbiz tales with relish but for me there was rather too much talk and not enough music, but doubtless the format of the show is shaped by the self acknowledged limitations of Webb’s voice.
Webb began his performance of this “life in song” with “The Highwayman”, a song that was a hit for Glen Campbell and later for The Highwaymen, a country “supergroup” featuring Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. Cue a series of amusing anecdotes, particularly about the colourful and characterful Jennings, and the observation that the lyrics make the piece “the first existentialist country song”.
Born Oklahoma in 1946 Webb is the son of a Baptist minister and first played piano and organ in his father’s church before discovering early rock ‘n’ roll and embarking on a career of writing songs, the very first of them religiously themed. After the family moved to California in the mid 60s Webb went to music college and eventually landed a job as a staff writer for Motown. He told us that his first songwriting credit on a record was for a forgettable ditty entitled “My Christmas Tree” that appeared on the very first Supremes album. He also worked briefly with the Everley Brothers, a duo who remain hugely popular in the UK.
It was the Motown connection that led him to the group The Fifth Dimension for whom he penned the hit “Up, Up And Away”, a piece of pop fluff that was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic with UK listeners becoming familiar with the song thanks to its use in an advertisement for Nimble bread, a fact that gave Webb the opportunity to level some self deprecating humour in his own direction. He played the song too, making a joke of his inability to hit the top notes and inviting the audience to do it for him - obviously the ladies had something of a natural advantage! The fact that the song got pulled off the radio in the States for apparent drug references was laughable then, it seems even more ludicrous now. However after this success the second Fifth Dimension was filled almost entirely of Jimmy Webb material.
While Webb was churning out pop hits writers such as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen were taking songwriting in another direction. Webb seemed to have genuine admiration for Dylan’s surrealist sixties ramblings even though he didn’t know exactly what Bob was singing about. He then proceeded to poke gentle fun at Cohen with a humorous deconstruction of Laughing Len’s lugubrious ballad “Suzanne”.
Nonetheless the emerging counter culture began to have its effect on Webb and he started dressing like a hippy and writing more serious songs. It was around this time that he first met Glen Campbell, a performer he already admired. Their first meeting was during the shooting of a General Motors commercial with the clean cut country singer telling Webb to “get a haircut”. However despite their personal and political differences Webb and Campbell became highly productive creative partners with Campbell giving voice to the definitive versions of “By The Time I get To Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston”. Their friendship has endured for nearly fifty years and Webb also spoke movingly about Campbell’s well documented struggles with Alzheimers Disease. “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” was performed at this point.
Webb talked of his admiration for the music of Simon and Garfunkel and was initially distressed when the duo chose to break up. However he quickly deduced that if Garfunkel was embark on a solo career he was going to need songs and the pair collaborated successfully on albums such as “Watermark” and on the hit single “All I Know”, a song also performed tonight.
Webb’s UK shows are clearly tailored for a British audience and he talked of his love for London and spoke with fondness about his friendship with the late Joe Cocker, another artist with whom he enjoyed a fruitful collaboration.
Some of his fruitiest and most descriptive anecdotes related to his hell raising adventures with the rabble rousing Irish born actor Richard Harris. Tales of drunken parties and epic pub crawls across Ireland were lapped up by his audience. The pair collaborated on Harris’ album “A Tramp Shining”, the recording sessions fuelled by alcohol. And then of course there was the enormous hit “MacArthur Park”, seven minutes of melodramatic recitative courtesy of Harris wrapped up in a grandiose arrangement. I’ve always found it unconvincing and totally over the top, give me the Glen Campbell hits any day.
Much more to my liking is the much covered “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress”, recorded by Cocker, Judy Collins, Joan Baez and Linda Ronstadt among others. Webb even acknowledged the beautiful instrumental version recorded by jazz musicians Charlie Haden (bass) and Pat Metheny (guitar) on the album “Beyond The Missouri Sky”. Webb’s own performance of the song was among his best of the evening and was genuinely moving.
Webb’s wisecracking tribute to his fellow songwriter P. F. Sloan was a British hit for the artist Rumer. Tonight’s wryly humorous performance of the song was well suited to Webb’s voice and was one of the most convincing items in the programme.
He concluded with “Wichita Lineman” and even though Webb’s singing is nowhere near capable of matching Campbell at his best the sheer quality of the song still shone through. Even though the vocals were a little rough around the edges there was still a certain magic in seeing its writer perform this most iconic of songs, another piece that has also been successfully covered by jazz instrumentalists.
Webb took his bows as many of the audience stood to applaud him before returning to storm his way through “MacArthur Park”, giving the piano a damn good pounding in the process. Webb is a highly accomplished pianist but even that can’t fully compensate for his shortcomings as a vocalist.
I approached Webb’s performance with an element of detachment. I admire some of his songs, but by no means all of them, and generally found his presentation all a bit too “showbiz” for my personal tastes. The tales of famous people, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley were also mentioned, began to pall after a while and there were moments when I was, frankly, rather bored. This was as much a “review” as a concert performance with too much reliance being placed on the spoken word. I was also very disappointed not to hear “Galveston”.
But for all this Jimmy Webb has made the most of his talents and earned his place among the songwriting immortals. His more devoted fans accorded him a standing ovation and after the show the queues for the meet & greet / album signing session were very long indeed.
I didn’t hang about and took my leave following one of those rare gigs where I found myself enjoying the support act more than the headliner - and I’m delighted that tonight was such a success for the emerging talent that is Deborah Rose.
Rose and Webb will also be playing the following dates as part of this current tour;
Jimmy Webb with Special Guest Deborah Rose - Apex, Bury St Edmunds
Jimmy Webb with Special Guest Deborah Rose - Alban Arena, St Albans, Herts
Jimmy Webb with Special Guest Deborah Rose - Tivoli Theatre, Wimborne Minster, Dorset
Jimmy Webb with Special Guest Deborah Rose - Cadogan Hall, London, UK
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