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Webb creates magic, shares stories at Tralf

Over the years, a startling array of singers have performed his music everyone from Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand to Glen Campbell and Ray Charles -- and most have done it well.

But something magical happens when songwriter Jimmy Webb sits down at a big grand piano and interprets his own work.

A Buffalo audience got to see that in the Tralf Saturday night in a powerful, intimate, funny performance by one of the most successful songwriters of the past half-century.

On a night of bone-chilling temperatures, the tables of the Tralf were about three-quarters full, and those who made the trip downtown seemed to truly enjoy the music and Webb's stories about some of the famous people he met and recorded with.

"I think this is my first concert ever in Buffalo," said the 64-year-old Webb at the outset. "I can't be absolutely sure, because I don't remember the '70s."

His voice will never be mistaken for the golden pipes of Sinatra or Campbell, but Webb's singing was strong and soulful as he worked his way through a list of poignant, time-tested songs.

He opened the show with "Highwayman," an unusual song about reincarnation that was a Grammy winner and a huge hit in the 1990s for a country super group made up of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Webb's close friend, the late Waylon Jennings. He then moved into "Galveston," his Vietnam War song about a soldier writing a letter to his girlfriend back home as bombs explode all around him.

"People have asked me, "Is that an antiwar song?' " Webb said. "I say, "No, it was an anti-people getting caught up in war song.' "

Alone on the piano, Webb performed "Oklahoma Nights," a song he recently recorded with country artist Vince Gill, and put everything he had into "All I Know," a soaring ballad that was a hit for Art Garfunkel in the 1970s.

Perhaps the most beautiful song of the night was "Wichita Lineman," a Campbell hit that tells the simple story of a lonely man working on power lines while he thinks about his woman. Webb's piano work was especially moving on this song.

He only performed 10 songs in the 90-minute show, but Webb spent lots of time between numbers telling stories about Sinatra, Jennings, Linda Ronstadt, Harry Nilsson and other luminaries from the music world. At times, the stories went on a bit long, but it was fascinating to hear about a young songwriter -- Webb -- being summoned to Sinatra's huge Los Angeles mansion, carrying a shopping bag full of demo tapes and barely making it into the driveway in a rusted-out Volkswagen.

"Mr. Sinatra treated me like a son," said Webb, who had a musical friendship with Sinatra that lasted more than 20 years.

You could tell Webb was thinking about Sinatra during his version of "Didn't We," a stirring ballad that the Oklahoma native wrote when he was still in high school.

The audience clearly enjoyed the rare chance to see one of America's best tunesmiths practice his craft. They gave him several standing ovations, but some voiced disappointment that he didn't sing two of his most famous songs -- "By The Time I Get To Phoenix" and "MacArthur Park."

Although his voice retains a bit of Oklahoma drawl, Webb now lives in Oyster Bay, Long Island, with his wife, Laura Savini. Last week, he was elected chairman of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

That seems very fitting.

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com

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