By Kurt Wolff
He may have Alzheimer’s, and he may be on his “Goodbye Tour,” but on stage, Glen Campbell can still sing, charm fans, and play guitar like the dickens.
During a show Thursday (June 28) at Ravinia in Highland Park, Ill.–an idyllic outdoor amphitheater just north of Chicago–GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award-winner Campbell showed exactly why he had won over so many fans over his 50-plus years as a musician and entertainer. He was playful, he was fun, and he sang a series of songs that still, decades later, are some of the most enduring in pop music.
The 18 songs in Campbell’s hour-long set included such classics as “Gentle on My Mind,” “Galveston,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Witchita Lineman,” and of course his signature hit “Rhinestone Cowboy,” all of which he originally recorded during the 1960s and ’70s.
Among other songs he played were “Southern Nights,” “Try a Little Kindness,” “True Grit,” a cover of Hank Williams‘ “Lovesick Blues,” and a small handful from his most recent album, Ghost on the Canvas. (He included nothing from his previous album, however–2008’s excellent Meet Glen Campbell.)
Campbell first announced he had Alzheimer’s last year, and also said that he was embarking on a “Goodbye Tour” to play for fans one last time while still able.
And able he still is. He may have tripped over a lyric now and then, and rambled on a bit about the heat (it was sweltering), but for the most part he pushed straight through the material with the vigor of a man many years younger. His voice cracked on a few high notes but for the most part retained that warm, gentle tone that first endeared him to AM radio fans decades ago.
He seemed most comfortable, though, when playing guitar–which was, after all, his first love (he was a member of famed L.A. session group the Wrecking Crew before breaking out as a singer). He had an assortment of beautiful guitars, but no matter which he chose, his playing was swift and, at the same time, easygoing. His eyes closed, he let his mind relax and his fingers feel their way around the instrument like they’d been doing for decades. The guitar solos he took on songs such as “Witchita Lineman” and “Phoenix” proved high points of the show.
The six-piece band backing Glen up during the show included three of his children–daughter Ashley and sons Shannon (guitar) and Cal (drums). Watching how each seemed to truly adore their dad, even dabbing the sweat from his forehead with a towel, only added to the charm of the show. Ashley also proved a mean banjoist, going head-to-head with Glen on the instrumental “Dueling Banjos.”
As a curious aside, the band also included another famous offspring, Kief Nilsson, son of famed L.A. songwriter Harry Nilsson.
Glen closed the show with “A Better Place,” a moving, melancholy song from Ghost on the Canvas. “One thing I know,” he sang, “the world’s been good to me/A better place awaits, you’ll see.” A video of the song was just released last week.
Glen shared the bill at Ravinia with another legendary country artist, Ronnie Milsap. Working his way through songs of his such as “Stranger in My House,” “Pure Love,” “Lost in the Fifties Tonight,” and “Smoky Mountain Rain” (he’s had an astounding 40 Billboard Number Ones during his career), his voice may not have held up quite as well as Campbell’s, but was still firmly in charge in front of his grand piano.
And the stories he told of growing up, persevering in music despite being blind, discovering doo-wop on the streets of Philadelphia, meeting Ray Charles, and being married to the same woman for 46 years were endearing and showed off his folksy, friendly personality.