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Few concerts have carried with them the innate poignancy that marks Glen Campbell’s current tour. As is by now well known, the veteran performer is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and he has announced that his recent album Ghost on the Canvas and its accompanying tour will be his last.
There was thus an atmosphere of both celebration and sadness at his sold-out appearance Saturday night at NYC’s Town Hall. Both the audience and the performer were engaged in a mutual farewell, one that was marked by love and affection by the former and, not so incidentally, great music by the latter.
To answer the most prurient question first, yes, there were signs of the 75-year-old Campbell’s affliction. He rarely looked up from the several Teleprompters at the foot of the stage while singing; he sometimes seemed disoriented and confused; and his between-song patter was choppy and diffuse.
But from his opening number, the classic “Gentle on My Mind,” he demonstrated why he’s had one of the most successful careers in country music. His singing, although here unfortunately undermiked, remains pure and sweet, and his guitar playing, seemingly unimpaired, is still a marvel. Ripping off one fluid and inventive solo after another, he provided a vivid reminder of his days as one of LA’s most in-demand session musicians.
He also constantly displayed a winning humor and good cheer that prevented the evening from lapsing into an atmosphere of pity or maudlin sentimentality.
Campbell’s collaborations with songwriter Jimmy Webb are among pop music’s finest. Such songs as “Galveston,” “By the Time I Got to Phoenix” and “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress”–the last gorgeously sung with only piano accompaniment from musical director T.J. Kuenster, who’s been playing with Campbell for 35 years — were, not surprisingly, show highlights. But it was “Wichita Lineman” that truly delivered goosebumps, especially when the singer joyously added the phrase, “Still on the line… and I’m doing fine!” at the end.
Along the way, he delved into several country standards: “I Can’t Stop Loving You”; Hank Williams’ “Lonesome Blues,” which he embellished with yodels; and Conway Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe.” (Of the latter he commented that “Elvis should have done this one” before proceeding to deliver an amusing impersonation.)
His kitschier side was not ignored, via such songs as the theme to True Grit, the 1969 film in which he co-starred with John Wayne, and his ‘70s #1 pop hit “Southern Nights.” And he clearly relished the opportunity to perform a duet on the instrumental “Dueling Banjos” with his daughter Ashley, who–along with her siblings Shannon and Cal — were part of his back-up band.
He also performed several numbers from his simultaneously inspirational and elegiac new album, one of the finest of his career. The show movingly and fittingly ended with “A Better Place,” which feature these lyrics: “I’ve tried and I have failed, Lord / I’ve won and I have lost / I’ve lived and I have loved, Lord / Sometimes at such a cost / One thing I know, the world’s been good to me / A better place awaits, you’ll see.” The roaring standing ovation that ensued as he walked into the wings somehow seemed wholly insufficient.
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