Glen Campbell w/Instant People
Saturday, January 7
Better than: Not getting to say farewell.
At a sold-out Town Hall on Saturday, Glen Campbell yodeled as well as Hank Williams, crooned like a country Sinatra and played flashy, funky leads that sounded like he was channelling both Django Reinhardt and Jimi Hendrix. For a man of 75, it would have been amazing. But considering the guy was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease a year ago? Something magical—or maybe religious—was happening on that damn stage.
Campbell strode onto the stage with a big smile and a blue jacket festooned with shiny blue beads. Expectation and anxiety flashed through the air like heat lightning; after all, the gigs he’s playing right now are being referred to as “The Goodbye Tour.” As soon as he sang the opening lines to “Gentle On My Mind” in the voice of a worldly choirboy, the place exploded. Cool cats with porkpie hats and big, serious glasses, as well as silver-haired 70somethings who might have been the last remnants of Richard Nixon’s “Silent Majority,” squealed with happiness, and something like relief.
Campbell blew the occasional word. He didn’t mention that Paul Westerberg wrote the the title song of his latest (and final) album, Ghost On The Canvas. But otherwise—spangly jacket or not—the man was brilliant.
The tears, earnest, earned, came as early as the second tune: “Galveston,” a Jimmy Webb song about a guy involved in a 1960s American overseas conflict, although the recently ended war in Iraq was clearly being referenced as well. Of course, by song’s end, instead of playing the deep, Duane Eddy-style solo he did on the original, Campbell tossed off some licks at once impossibly complex and flat-out gorgeous.
Although, Alzheimer’s-lost at times, Campbell was both in good spirits and full of jokes. Before launching into the title song from (the original) True Grit, he laid this one on the crowd: “Back in ’69, they asked me if I wanted to be in a movie with John Wayne. I told ’em,’Hey, I ain’t ever acted, you know. My record is still clean!'” Everyone laughed.
With his daughter Debby on banjo and matching him demented run for demented run, Campbell zoomed through the Deliverance theme. He got down-and-dirty and greaser-sexy as he cooed through Conway Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe.” Hank Williams’s oldie, “Lovesick Blues,” sat nicely along Teddy Thompson’s newbie, “In My Arms.” And any time the assembled were about to start a-blubberin’ over a sad song, he knew how, musically, to reassure them. “Don’t go to any trouble/ You know I won’t be here long,” the man sang, via a tune written by Westerberg. Though mortality hung over the proceedings, the man on stage, while acknowledging his disease, celebrated like mad, too. “Yep, death is coming for all of us, one of these old days,” he seemed to say. “But you know something? Not tonight!”
If there was one discordant moment, it came during Campbell’s rendition of “The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress,” a tune so full of apocalyptic loss and anomie it makes “The End Of The World” sound like “Hollaback Girl.” Yet, as he began, Campbell unbuttoned his black shirt, causing a woman in the audience to scream like she was at Chippendales. The singer, confused, found himself joking and fumbling his way through much of the song before finally finding its tragic overtones again.
But I quibble. Whether leaning in and pulling out the depth of “Wichita Lineman,” matching Ray Charles note-for-note on “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” or encouraging the assembled urban buckaroos to sing the chorus to “Rhinestone Cowboy,” Campbell’s instincts, playing and pacing were just about flawless.
With the capacity Town Hall crowd on its feet at the end, this spiritual show grew even more so. Holding his electrified Ovation as close to his chest as a precious child, Campbell sang “A Better Place,” a song he co-wrote. A fitting and brave goodbye, the song speaks clear-eyed of the end, how good life has been, and the finer, fairer, more peaceful place that awaits us—if we’re lucky. Looking around at the crowd, all of them clapping, many of them crying, I wondered for a few seconds about the afterlife, and I believe I can speak for my fellow audience members here: if there is a world after this one, and Glen Campbell is playing there? I’m no longer quite so scared to go. In fact, I think I’m even looking forward to it.
Critical bias: Campbell might have broken everybody’s heart on Saturday, but he did so in the most beautiful way imaginable.
Random notebook dump: The opening band, Instant People, counts three of Campbell’s children among its members; they later backed up their dad during his set.