Glen Campbell Stafford Centre September 21, 2011
Thursday night may have been the most profoundly uncomfortable Aftermath has ever been watching a live performance.
In the past year, we have seen many artists of advanced years in concert, from Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson to Texas Johnny Brown and Little Joe Washington. Age has taken its toll on their physical abilities to varying degrees, but all of them had their wits about them. Glen Campbell did not, at least not completely.
Campbell, 75, and his wife Kim announced he had Alzheimer's Disease this past June. It was a preemptive strike, they told People magazine, so that "if he flubs a lyric or gets confused on stage, I wouldn't want people to think, 'What's the matter with him? Is he drunk?" Kim said.
How long he has had it is anyone's guess, but Aftermath has had enough Alzheimer's experience within our own family to know that once the symptoms manifest themselves enough for a proper diagnosis, the condition is already pretty advanced.
The Campbells should be commended for their candor, and even for wanting to give the singer one more chance to say thank you - and goodbye - to his fans. But at what cost? He did flub lyrics, and get confused, and more. Besides making several quips about not remembering things, Campbell asked several times what key a song was in, couldn't remember the name of perhaps his biggest hit, "Wichita Lineman," and had to stop one song completely and start over. Painfully.
On top of that, Campbell is touring with several of his children in his band. It's reassuring to know that he's no doubt being well looked-after on the road, but it has to be heartbreaking for them to watch their dad go through this night after night. In public. It was heartbreaking enough to watch. Whether he was joking or not, when Campbell introduced his guitarist son Shannon, he said, "What's your name again?" Ouch.
The essence of the evening can be boiled down to what happened in the early moments of one song, "Dueling Banjos." On guitar, Campbell flubbed several notes before something clicked and he and daughter Ashley on banjo were both off to the races, picking to beat the band as the crowd at the sold-out theater clapped along with glee. (His apples didn't fall very far from the tree at all, as Ashley and Shannon demonstrated on a haunting bluegrass tune called "Birds" that made Aftermath wish we'd seen Allison Krauss at ACL last weekend.)
It was fascinating to watch, evidence that music can light up areas of the brain otherwise dimmed by Alzheimer's, advanced age or any number of other maladies. It happened several other times, too: A nearly perfect jazz solo on "Wichita," ditto on "True Grit," and the melancholy croon of a lesser-known Webb song, "The Moon's a Harsh Mistress," that could have melted stone. Campbell nailed it, then said to his pianist and longtime musical director T.J. Kuenster, "I really like that song... have we been doing that one lately?"
Campbell had little difficulty with the lyrics to most of his best-known tunes: "Galveston" was great, "Gentle On My Mind," "Dreams of the Everyday Housewife" and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" all came and went without incident. Contrast that with "Ghost On the Canvas," the exquisite Paul Westerberg-penned title track of his sterling new album, which never got off the ground Wednesday, grinding to a halt as Campbell berated his band "when I'm not singing, don't keep it rolling."
The couple beside us must not have read that People article, because this part of the show cracked them up no end. Cringe. Deep breath.
Campbell did fare better on the other Canvas songs: Chipper folk-rocker "It's Your Amazing Grace," and a quick encore of the psych-poppy, almost R.E.M or ELO-like "In My Arms" - earlier, Tom Petty's "Walls" gave us an unconscious grin as well; more of that whole music-and-the-brain thing - and penitent acoustic ballad "A Better Place," where he took stock and gave thanks.
Overall, his voice was on the wan side, but it had its moments, like hitting the falsetto in Roy Orbison's "Sweet Dream Baby" and a dead-on Conway Twitty drawl in "It's Only Make Believe." He does a great Elvis, John Wayne and even Donald Duck. Really.
Light moments like that were almost enough to put the gravity of the situation out of your mind, but not quite. Even though we'd never seen Campbell before, the knowledge that we were watching a star who was a shadow of his former self hung over the evening like a shroud.
If this is the rhinestone cowboy's last star-spangled rodeo, we can only hope those closest to him tell him when it's time to hang up his spurs for good and not try to squeeze another lap or two out of him. That hour is already drawing close at hand, and someone of Campbell's magnitude deserves nothing less.
Personal Bias: I've been a fan of Campbell's for years. I still am, but if I had to do it all over again, I would probably pass on those review tickets. That said, I cannot recommend Ghost On the Canvas highly enough.
The Crowd: Getting up there in years themselves, with a few younger oddballs here and there.
Overseen In the Crowd: One guy behind us, probably about Campbell's age, reaching for his wife's hand during "It's Only Make Believe."
Random Notebook Dump: Glad he didn't do Guided By Voices' "Hold On Hope," from Canvas, Wednesday. I would have literally cried.
Gentle On My Mind Galveston By the Time I Get To Phoenix Try a Little Kindness Walls (Tom Petty cover) Where's the Playground, Susie? Dreams of the Everyday Housewife True Grit Sweet Dream Baby (Roy Orbison cover) Birds (Ashley & Shannon Campbell duet) Dueling Banjos It's Your Amazing Grace Ghost On the Canvas It's Only Make Believe (Conway Twitty cover) Southern Nights The Moon's a Harsh Mistress Wichita Lineman Rhinestone Cowboy
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In My Arms A Better Place