Michael Feinstein, Jimmy Webb Bring Only One Life to the Palace

By Bill Ede

The November 12 Michael Feinstein/Jimmy Webb concert at the Louisville Palace provided a forum for the interaction between two people who obviously have a lot of respect for each other. Feinstein, a song stylist of the highest caliber, is usually associated with the songs of George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Burton Lane, among others. Webb is one of the most respected - and covered - songwriters of the latter half of the Twentieth Century, who created a highly-distinctive, piano-centered songwriting style in the late 1960's that has left its mark, directly or indirectly, on much of the melody-based popular music since that time. Though a household name in his heyday (uncommon for a publishing company-affiliated "staff" songwriter at the time), Webb never gained wide acceptance as a recording artist, having preceded the singer-songwriter movement by several years, although 1993's Suspending Disbelief and 1996's Ten Easy Pieces (a long-awaited collection of Webb performances of his best-known songs) have done much to garner interest in his earlier solo recordings.

The handful of Feinstein/Webb concerts on the current tour are centered around Feinstein's latest CD., Only One Life, a collection of Webb-written songs, although the Louisville set can be said to have relied much too heavily on Webb's better-known songs. In his attempt to help Webb take his rightful place alongside America's classic songwriters (Webb was a recent recipient of the prestigious Johnny Mercer Award), Feinstein included some "required listening" in "Didn't We," "The Moon's a Harsh Mistress" and a Jobim-inspired take on "Up, Up and Away," but missed the chance to showcase equally-accomplished newer gems like "Louisa Blu," "She Moves, Eyes Follow" and "Is There Love After You?," also from the current CD. The album's title song, "Only One Life," opened the concert as part of a medley (with the "After All the Loves of My Life" segment of Webb's well-known "MacArthur Park") and was followed by "Belmont Avenue" from the future Broadway adaptation of Robert DeNiro's A Bronx Tale, with Webb providing "doo wops" with a "Mafia twist." Attempts at humor, such as Feinstein's Groucho Marx impersonation, were well received, but the "dueling piano" medley of snippets from "Beethoven's 5th," "Heart and Soul" and "Rhapsody in Blue" seemed to take away from the business at hand - Webb's songs.

Webb also backed up Feinstein on "A Snow-Covered Christmas," whereupon Webb, the son of a Baptist minister, demonstrates once-and-for-all that one doesn't have to be Jewish (although it may help) to write a "classic-sounding" Christmas song. Feinstein also performed Webb's "Piano" along with Irving Berlin's "I Love a Piano" as a medley. The only other non-Webb songs were featured in a Gershwin segment by Feinstein and included "Summertime," "Embraceable You," "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "Someone to Watch Over Me," among others - all performed in Feinstein's highly capable style.

Webb got to sing a handful of songs, himself, in addition to backing up Feinstein on certain numbers, although not nearly enough to satisfy this fan's need for a "Webb fix." He certainly chose some classics: "By the Time I Get To Phoenix," "The Highwaymen," "All I Know" and the much-covered "Wichita Lineman" (a cover of which was mistakenly credited to the Sand Mountain Boys in my November review. The text should have credited the Scud Mountain Boys). The songs were performed lovingly with Webb's limited, yet expressive, vocal style, but only served to leave me hungry for more. (I got to hear Webb by himself in Nashville in 1993 and that concert was more to my taste - perhaps more in "artist" than "entertainer" mode - although I seem to recall wanting to hear more when that concert was over as well.)

Whether performed by Feinstein or Webb, the songs of Jimmy Webb were well represented at The Palace on November 12 and a lot of Jimmy Webb is a lot of a good thing. Perhaps someday he will perform an entire show in Louisville by himself, as have better-known singer-songwriters who walked through doors he largely opened: Paul Williams, Billy Joel, even Elton John. Until that happens, shows like the recent Palace one will have to suffice as a reminder of just how much this pioneer - still only 57 years young - accomplished so many years ago and as a vehicle to help catch us up on all that's transpired in the interim period.