This was the return of the prodigal son. Although Jimmy Webb was born in Oklahoma, his musical homecomings haven’t always measured up to his stature as an artist. The Blue Door benefit was different, and special in many ways. On the previous evening, Webb had mesmerized a crowd of more than 400, performing solo at the Center Stage in Oklahoma City with singer Michael Fracasso opening the show. The capacity of the Blue Door is barely 100, and everyone in the building this night was a die-hard Webb fanatic.
The Blue Door is a ramshackle joint that had been badly in need renovations for some time; guitarist Charlie Sexton once said the unsteady venue was “being held up by God.” But between battling city inspectors and fighting to make ends meet, proprietor Greg Johnson has provided Oklahoma City with a unique space to hear real American music. For a decade it has been a refuge for veteran musicians, as well as a haven for young songwriters still developing their craft. Regular performers at the Blue Door have included Jimmy LaFave, Ray Wylie Hubbard and Kevin Welch, to name but a talented few.
Local musicians Mary Reynolds and Louise Goldberg opened the benefit show with an impressive songbook of jazz, blues, folk and country. Reynolds even celebrated the Blue Door’s addition of a second bathroom with a loving refrain of “At Last”. But this was Jimmy Webb’s night: His Oklahoma family and friends lined the front row, and a grand piano, imported for the occasion, dominated the club’s tiny stage.
After acknowledging Johnson, the Blue Door and the important service venues like this provide, Webb was off and running with a breathless version of “The Highwayman”. Although his voice was still rough from the previous evening, Webb could not have put more passion into his performance. He was obviously inspired by family, nostalgia and circumstance, and he didn’t hold back as he sang many of his most popular compositions, including “Up, Up And Away” and “MacArthur Park”. His rendition of “If These Walls Could Speak” was especially plaintive.
Webb was completely at ease as he reminisced about his youth in Oklahoma. Some of his retrospection was connected to the recent release of his box-set anthology The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress: Jimmy Webb In The Seventies. When he sang his forgotten early classic “P.F. Sloan” (from his first solo album), he had the Webb family members in attendance provide the backing of a gospel choir.
Webb also introduced several new songs from his forthcoming album Twilight Of The Renegades, which gave him an opportunity to tell some hilarious stories about lost comrades Waylon Jennings, Harry Nilsson and Richard Harris. The new material included wise, moving pieces like “She Moves, Eyes Follow” and “How Quickly”, as well as the more playful “Spanish Radio”.
Webb was not afraid to offer anti-war commentary when introducing “Galveston”, pointing out that the spirit of the song, written at the height of the Vietnam War, remains relevant today.
As always, Webb’s piano work was magnificent. He made orchestral maneuvers and embellished harmonies on songs that could have sounded overly familiar in the hands of a lesser musician. And as he embraced “Wichita Lineman” for the millionth time in his storied career, one could see a complicated singer-songwriter finally comfortable in his own skin.