On Saturday night, Levitt Pavilion at MacArthur Park was gradually melting into dark as Jimmy Webb took the stage a little after 8 p.m. and sat before a grand piano.
The personable, chatty songwriter greeted the crowd, many of whom were sitting on blankets or lawn chairs, and over nearly a dozen songs sang of long-gone love standing on the shores of Galveston, of highwaymen, sailors, dam builders and starship pilots, and excursions headed up (up and away) in his (beautiful) balloon.
In between, the longtime Angeleno since relocated to New York, told stories like he was sitting in a living room among friends.
He recalled wearing a vest made out of yak hide when meeting Frank Sinatra, who feted him at Caesars Palace, and relayed Louis Armstrong's songwriting advice to him. Webb recounted the breakup of Simon & Garfunkel with a mix of sadness and glee -- Garfunkel would certainly need songs! -- and detailed a memory of Webb's father carrying a Bible and a gun to an Oklahoma radio station whose program director had banned “Up, Up and Away” for purportedly being about drugs. (Fifteen minutes later, said Webb, the song was in rotation.)
And as the inaugural evening of the summer Levitt Pavilion concert series was coming to a close, with a siren echoing in the distance and a nearby taco-tent spatula clanging on a grill, Webb sang “MacArthur Park,” his mysterious, weird, unlikely hit about the spot, its inhabitants, a girl in a yellow dress and the park looking like a cake with green icing melting in the rain.
Webb, 66, performed his signature hit for the first time in the namesake setting where he penned the lyrics over 45 years ago. If the park and its surrounding neighborhood have changed in the intervening decades (they have, as evidenced by a noisy LAPD helicopter circling the park, its spotlight beaming on some unknown assailant), his rendition on solo piano successfully sent the crowd back to a different moment in the evolving life of Los Angeles.
Was Webb's singing off-key on Saturday night? At times, resoundingly so. There’s a reason why grand vocalists such as Barbra Streisand, Linda Ronstadt and the Fifth Dimension made these records soar instead of Webb himself. He’s got an average voice that can’t hit ‘em like he used to.
Webb, though, was quick to acknowledge his shortcomings. When he introduced his song about a fellow songwriter, “P.F. Sloan,” and brought out British vocalist Rumer to perform it, he prefaced her arrival by sardonically saying, “I know there hasn't been much singing going on out here.” He harnessed this weakness as a strength, never sacrificing emotion for fear of an off-tune moment.
“MacArthur Park” wasn’t the night’s highlight. That was his magnificent rendition of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” in which the song’s narrator describes a forlorn eastbound departure from L.A. and the woman he loved, driving through Phoenix, Albuquerque and Oklahoma and imagining her back home in lyrics with typical vividness.
In real life, Webb, who has a new album of duets arriving this summer, ultimately landed on the East Coast. But although L.A. might be in his rearview mirror, Webb's Saturday night return to the park -- and its rain-soaked cake -- confirmed his place as an essential chronicler of West Coast life.
Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit