The Bezemes Family Theater at the J. Scheidegger Center for the Arts
September 9, 2011
The sound sailed out across the theatre. It was the last note of the last song of the last encore for the last show in St. Louis (St. Charles to be exact). That was it for Glen Campbell. There isn't going to be another comeback.
He had telegraphed the song: "A Better Place," written by the singer with Julian Raymond, and found on his 2011 record Ghost on the Canvas, his second largely successful attempt to re-imagine his country pop sound for a new day and new audiences.
One thing I know
The world's been good to me
A better place awaits, you'll see.
It's a bit maudlin when you read it, but there it was as an epigraph to the program passed out in the hall. As with nearly every line Campbell has sung, the words need that voice to become what they really mean.
There are farewell tours and then there's this. Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2010, though he kept the fact hidden till just recently. Barring some dawn of the singularity, there will be no more records, no more shows for this rhinestone cowboy. He gets this victory lap, but he won't be able to make it on his own. The Greeks have a word for it: pathos. But this is something different than Warren Zevon saying goodbye with David Letterman.
Soon Glen Campbell won't know who Glen Campbell is. Think about that. Soon his daughter or son will be driving him around town, "Wichita Lineman" will come on the radio, he or she will say, "That's you, Dad," and he won't believe them. He could still sing it, the melody runs through his body, but there's no teleprompter in the car, and it's getting late.
The Glen Campbell Goodbye Tour was a coup for Lindenwood University. The show had sold out, which likely distinguishes it from the rest of the season's highlights: "The Lennon Sisters Christmas," "Rich Little as Jimmy Stewart," "Ed Asner as FDR" -- but you never know. Don't underestimate the over-70 crowd. You'll be among them soon enough for "James Franco as Morrissey."
The stage was lit smartly with just a spangle of lights for a backdrop as a disembodied voice warned against powering up cell phones or digital cameras (the ushers swooped down on any patron even trying to tweet). Campbell walked out on stage to a standing ovation, and then his family band -- daughters and sons holding down keyboards, drums and guitars -- rolled into St. Louis' native son John Hartford's "Gentle on My Mind," Campbell's first big hit, a song that he's sung every other night for the last 40-some years. In a cream jacket and black shirt and black jeans, he held the wireless microphone and stared down at the teleprompters. The band hadn't found its collective feet and he lost the words -- the damn song has a lot of them -- and only barely recovered. Would this be how the night would go? Not even, not remotely, not gently on anyone's mind into the last good night? Would pathos become bathos?
His second song, "Galveston," had an answer. No. The singer could still sing, sing like the giant of country and pop music he is, sing better and richer and with more regal tone than any of his contemporaries, save the three who are still with us: Jones, Haggard and Price. But only Campbell can do "Galveston," with its gliding ache and towering melody, the uncanny justice it demands. These are pop songs, but they are hard as dying to sing. And he still has all the voice he or anyone needs.
That peculiar blend of majesty and humility, grace and a country good time, the tone of his career, was still intact, even as he struggled with the monitors -- he darted off stage at one point to chew out the sound guy -- and laughed at the absurdity of following the karaoke screens at this feet. But he needed no cueing for his guitar solos; at the age of 75, the sharecropper's son can still burn, his big hands moving with Olympian speed and precision all across the frets. No one needed reminding that he is a musician first and foremost, a member of the famed Wrecking Crew session maestros and briefly for the Beach Boys (OK, I'll remind you: That's his guitar you hear on "Good Vibrations").
His family band handled all the hits just fine, even as his keyboardist and musical director called to the teleprompter techs stage right to bring up the chorus again when Glen would lose his way. "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" was delicate and dreamy, with the singer standing at the apron, his thumb stuck casually in his jean pocket. "Try a Little Kindness" had urgency and a touch of gospel pop, while the newer songs, "Walls" from 2008's Meet Glen Campbell and "In My Arms" from Ghost on the Canvas, were so effortless one wished for more of the same. But even in a nineteen-song set, with most numbers clocking in around three minutes, there just wasn't time.
As you'd imagine from a veteran of Branson and a host of the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, he tried his best at a few jokes, though his daughters had to fill in the punch lines. "I made the King, no the Duke, look good so he'd win that Oscar," he said of his supporting role in True Grit. He brought daughter Ashley out to center stage to lead him in "Dueling Banjos" and "Roll in My Sweet Baby Arms," a variety-show gesture that, like an excellent Elvis impersonation on "It's Only Make Believe," worked more than fine.
And then, as the night came to a close, he turned to "Wichita Lineman," the Jimmy Webb song that can still make every last memory of the world go away, and replace every last remaining image that anyone might have with melody, pure melody. He nailed it. If you didn't let yourself cry, even just a little, you missed part of the point of being human.
"I just love music and I love to sing," he said, as daughter Debbie helped him introduce the family, and the disco ball lit up for "Rhinestone Cowboy."
It was the right sing-along for the right close for a night worth remembering. Thanks, Glen. Goodbye.
Overheard: 1) "I'll call you and tell you about the procedure," a lady said to her companions out in the parking lot. 2) "Three for $50," a man bargained at the merch table. 3) "Some of those solos reminded me of Richard Thompson," a friend said over a drink late into the evening.
Personal bias: Call it a bias if you must, I'll argue it all the same: The three most perfectly realized singles in country pop are "Galveston," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" and "Wichita Lineman." And country disco begins with "Southern Nights," and should have ended there.
Gentle On My Mind
By the Time I Get to Phoenix
Try a Little Kindness
Where's the Playground, Susie?
Dreams of an Everyday Housewife
It's Only Make Believe
Sweet Dreams Baby
Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms
The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress
In My Arms
It's Your Amazing Grace
A Better Place