POP / The only way is up, up and away: Jimmy Webb made a career of writing hits for other singers. Here's why. Andy Gill reports

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The Independent Online
By the time he gets to 'By the Time I Get to Phoenix', more than a few eyes have lost their battle with increasingly weighty eyelids. It's partly the fault of the food: this is a dinner-cabaret do at pounds 45 a head, with phalanxes of waiters ensuring that, by the time Jimmy Webb takes to the piano at around 9.45pm, most of the audience would rather take to a comfy armchair for a snooze.

It's partly the singer's fault, though: long lauded as one of America's premier songwriters, covered by everyone from Streisand to Sinatra, Jimmy Webb's own records have consistently failed to sell in substantial quantities, for reasons that become clear as soon as he pounds out the intro to 'Up, Up and Away', the song which, thanks to an advertising deal with TWA, made him a millionaire by the age of 20. The truth is that, though possessed of an engaging warmth, he simply can't sing that well, and in this bare, solo piano setting, his straining for the high notes is hard to disguise: it's an 'Up' too many for him to get away with.

This might not be an insurmountable handicap, given his back catalogue, but rather than pacing his set with plums from his songbook, he saves 'MacArthur Park' for the end of the set. Worse, he keeps 'By the Time I Get to Phoenix', 'Galveston' and 'Wichita Lineman' - in other words, the songs we're specifically here to hear - for an encore medley, segueing through them swiftly in a manner typical of singers tired of being defined by their early successes.

As for the the set itself, we get a lengthy segment devoted to his more recent, unsuccessful attempts to break into real Broadway showbiz, and another loosely devoted to women, especially female interpreters of his songs. Affording good opportunities for name-dropping chit-chat, the latter is relatively entertaining, but the show-tune segment is a real struggle, with work-in- progress songs about things like dogs, and Converse sneakers, and wishing for a white Christmas.

Webb is, however, an accomplished cabaret artiste, easy on the ear - provided he leans more towards baritone than tenor - and light of wit, with a taste for salty puns and a line in introductions which flatters his audience. Introducing a song called If You Love Me, Love My Dog, he adds, 'It's not about Joseph Stalin and his dog, for those political science majors out there', which gets a polite but baffled ripple of amusement. This kind of gratuitous intellectualism seeps into his material too, with convoluted rhymes like barbarian / cosmopolitan, inflation / complication and comedian / Presbyterian spiking otherwise straightforward songs. But just when you least expect it, he'll slip in a brilliant image like 'The future has its wings / Its careless wanderings', restoring one's faith in his reputation.

He's an inveterate name-dropper, casually slipping in references to the likes of Whoopi Goldberg and Jean Kennedy Smith (the US ambassador to Ireland) in his lengthy introductions, which are related in classic cabaret style over gentle piano vamps. A consummate pro, he also manages to integrate songs with their introductions: after complaining how Amy Grant 'goofed around' with his lyrics to 'If these Old Walls Could Speak', he then follows her alteration, changing 'hell' to 'heck', eliciting another modest chuckle. The same happens for 'Didn't We', in which he adds a couple of asides - 'Then Streisand added this bit . . .' (cue high line) '. . . and Sinatra added this' (cue low line). It's a slick way of reminding you that when the publisher's demos are stacked on these singers' desks, the one marked Jimmy Webb sits at the top of the pile.

Green Room, Cafe Royal to Sept 3. Booking: 071-437 9090

(Photograph omitted)

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