A Celebration of Jimmy Webb at NYC’s Pangea: A Review

Throughout the history of modern music, there have been songs that have entertained us, inspired us, and helped us get through the hard times of life.  Isn’t that, after all, what music is there for?  However, there are also the songs that make a permanent impact on American pop culture– and continue to do so as we enter 2023.  Award-winning multi-hyphenate (singer-songwriter-composer-producer) Jimmy Webb has written many of those songs that cemented their status in our vast collective of musical consciousness.  Best of all, the songs (Up, Up & Away, By the Time I Get to Phoenix, and Worst That Could Happen among them; more about these timeless hits later…) still sound amazing, whether they were first heard in 1967 or are just being discovered by a new generation who have never even known vinyl albums. New York City native Gerry Geddes, a multi-hyphenate in his own right (producer-director-writer-performer-critic-teacher), conceived and directed A Celebration of Jimmy Webb, a showcase of stories and musical performances which spotlight the songwriting career of the man with 14 original albums and seven collaborative albums in his discography.  As part of Geddes’ original monthly variety show Fabulous First Fridays, the celebratory tribute took place at the New York City cabaret hotspot Pangea on Saturday, January 7th.  The Musical Director of the show was Yasuhiko “Yaz” Fukuoka, who was also, in Geddes’ words, “the one-man orchestra” for the evening.  With only Fukuoka on piano for musical adornment, the talent of the six diverse singers really had the chance to shine through. Geddes, who also hosted the event, is a self-proclaimed fan of Jimmy Webb’s, declaring that Webb claimed pop music the same way that Sondheim (another of Geddes’ influences) claimed Broadway.  In addition to many of Jimmy Webb’s most well-known hit songs, there were some rare gems begging to be heard again, such as Everybody Gets to Go to the Moon, brilliantly performed with gusto by the alluring Lauren Mufson.  There were a few other surprises thrown in throughout the night as well.  An example was the phenomenal Andre Montgomery doing Johnny Mercer’s Goody Goody segueing into Mercer’s I Wanna Be Around… before bringing it home with Webb’s provocative, oft-reworked Do What You Gotta Do.  It was smart, sassy, funny, and a great display of Montgomery’s impressive range and charisma.  

But let’s start at the very beginning: Karen Mack opened the evening with Up, Up, & Away, which became a big hit for The Fifth Dimension in 1967.  What an opener! Mack’s love of performing really came through with this one. The song’s vibe may be endearingly “of its time”, but the resultant feeling of joy– bolstered by Karen’s effervescent persona– was truly timeless.  Mack’s performance every morning could indeed replace your daily anti-depressant.  Next up was Mike Schuil, who gave the audience Webb’s Didn’t We.  This song was recorded by several artists, including Frank Sinatra.  While Schuil indeed pays appropriate homage to Sinatra’s famous aura of “bravado” and his command of the lyrics, Mike also adds a new level of tenderness and endearment to this number.  Schuil was followed by Lisa Viggiano.  In the spirit of Gerry Geddes’ affinity for storytelling, Viggiano indeed got to share a chapter from her own proverbial “book of love”, while expertly combining story and music: She gave the audience the combo of the “bonus track” He’s So Fine by Ronnie Mack (with all the “do-lang”s intact) and Jimmy Webb’s Worst That Could Happen-– a song, by the way, which I always felt was one of the most heartbreaking entries on the transgenerational hit list. Viggiano performs with an earthy. casually magnetic quality which I can best describe as “The Girl Next Door– Who Just Happens to Sing Amazingly…”  Mike Schuil returned with special guest Wells Hanley on piano for one of Jimmy Webb’s most eternal hit songs, Wichita Lineman.  Rarely have I seen and heard the combination of lyrics, vocal delivery, and piano join forces as elegantly as in this performance; This one was definitely a crowd pleaser and one of many climaxes of the evening.  Another one of those climaxes came with By the Time I Get to Phoenix/5:30 Plane, which combined two vocal powerhouses: Lauren Mufson and Matt DiPasquale.  Neither of these artists missed a single note: Their time on stage together brought the audience to new levels of “Wow!” DiPasquale went solo for the haunting, poignant If These Walls Could Speak— which the singer shared was his favorite Jimmy Webb song.  If a recurrent theme of A Celebration of Jimmy Webb was storytelling via music, then this track really caught the essence of the night, brought to multidimensional life by DiPasquale’s story of his own relationship with Webb’s music.

Speaking of storytelling: Geddes knows the importance of rapport with the audience during his creative endeavors.  In between the music, he took the opportunity to share some of his stories.  They included (1) savage fiction which we fear could actually be true, and (2) savagely true stories that we wish had the mercy of actually being fictional… Specifically, Geddes read a passage from his upcoming vampire novel, Companion.  The theme may have been rooted in fantasy, but the author’s raw descriptions of unforgiving New York City 1980’s street life was shudderingly realistic.  In another segment, from his upcoming memoir Didn’t I Ever Tell You This, Geddes managed the Herculean task of creating humor even while recalling as dark a subject matter as the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Geddes shared with the audience that music helped him survive these heady times.  I doubt there was a single person in attendance that evening who couldn’t relate to the healing power of music; again, isn’t that what music io there for?

The moon has always inspired a seemingly endless playlist of music throughout the decades (which, interestingly, the other “moon song” earlier in the evening made note of…!), and one of them is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, sung by Mike Schuil.  Schuil took an appropriately somber yet anthemic take.  The delightful Karen Mack closed the evening with Still Within the Sound of My Voice.  It was no less than the perfect way to send off the audience… until next time!  

The next Fabulous First Fridays event will be on Friday, February 10th at 7:00PM at Pangea, 178 2nd Ave, New York City. Stay posted at http://www.PangeaNYC.com for upcoming info.

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