Glen Campbell faces mortality with candor, grace

Glen Campbell performed at Town Hall in New York in January, and in two reviews of the show, two very different perspectives emerged.

In The New York Times, Jon Caramanica wrote of Campbell: “Once a purveyor of highly successful country crossover hits that shone with slickness and confidence, he’s in deteriorating form now, ragged even at his best.  There were fragments of his old smooth croon at points during this show.  Mostly he showed decay, though that managed to make ‘Wichita Lineman’ seem a song about holding on to life by the barest of margins and made ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ almost defiant.”

In the Village Voice, writer Peter Gerstenzang was much more sanguine. Campbell, he wrote, “yodeled as well as Hank Williams, crooned like a country Sinatra and played flashy, funky leads that sounded like he was channeling both Django Reinhardt and Jimi Hendrix.  Something magical — or maybe religious — was happening on that damn stage.”

On Thursday night, Campbell will perform at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City, 10 months after he announced he had Alzheimer’s disease and eight months after he released his most recent album, “Ghost on the Canvas.” His worldwide, 80-plus show Goodbye Tour is his valediction to a career in its sixth decade.

Whether these shows are “magical” or difficult depends on one’s expectations, I suppose. But Campbell and his wife, Kim, have been public about his disease and its effects on his memory, so it should surprise no one that his performances are affected as well by moments of awkwardness and confusion. Some of those have been heartrending.

Sean Daly of the Tampa Bay Times visited Campbell in Shelton, Wash., where he performed before 1,600 fans at the Little Creek Casino Resort, and in his lengthy piece he described this interaction between Campbell and his daughter, Ashley, 25, one of three of Campbell’s children in his backing band:

“When Campbell and his daughter are supposed to duet on the bluegrass classic ‘Dueling Banjos,’ Campbell misses his cue. ‘Dad, aren’t you going to introduce me?’ He lets out a small laugh, looks down and, in a vaguely apologetic tone, tells her, ‘I really want to.’

“Her father has forgotten her name. So Ashley Campbell, trying to smile, introduces herself.”

Music can be a means of romance and escape, a departure from reality. But it can also be a way of staring reality square in the eyes. Few things are more real or intimate than being in the presence of someone near the end of his career who is confronting fate and mortality with candor, grace and courage.

That’s what Campbell is doing, and it’s something that those of us who go to live shows are seeing more of these days: our heroes heading into the gloaming.

Happy birthday, Glen

Today is Glen Campbell’s 76th birthday. He has lived a rich, rewarding life, one filled with awards and glory. He has performed and recorded with Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys and as part of the Wrecking Crew, a group of virtuosic session musicians in the 1960s.

He would become a multifaceted star beyond the music culture: an actor, a TV personality, a gifted singer and world-class guitar player. He co-starred alongside John Wayne as La Boeuf in “True Grit.” From 1968-72, he was host of his own hit TV variety show, “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.” He has won five Grammy awards, three Gammy Hall of Fame Awards, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and more than a dozen country music awards. He has had eight No. 1 country albums and sold more than 45 million albums worldwide.

Campbell and his family know that his career and his time onstage soon will end, that eventually he will no longer be able to consistently put on the kind of show that fans will want to see and hear. His manager told Daly that the tour, scheduled to end June 30, will go on “as long as Glen wants.”

Reviews of the Goodbye Tour have been positive, especially when it comes to Campbell’s instrumental prowess. His guitar playing, Caramanica wrote, “was surprisingly vital, especially on ‘Galveston’ and ‘Country Boy (You got Your Feet in L.A.)’ ”

But even beyond his playing, the show delivers plenty of rewards. Coleen Shaw-Voeks attended Campbell’s Branson show in early December with her husband, Erik Voeks, a Kansas City musician.

“I thought it was a great show,” she said. “There were some shaky moments, times when he got lost in the middle of a song, but he was able to bring things around again in a few moments, and his daughter was amazing at keeping him headed in the right direction. He obviously loves her very much and relies on her heavily. He repeated himself numerous times and tried to play one of the songs twice, but everyone was around to keep him on track.

“If you didn’t know that he had Alzheimer’s going into the show, it would have been obvious that


was wrong, but he was in good spirits about it, and whenever his daughter corrected him about something, he just smiled and laughed and made jokes.

“Going in, I was worried that it would be very ‘train-wreckish’ and I didn’t want to see Glen like that. But I was so pleasantly surprised at how smooth things went.”

Things have not gone so smoothly for some of Campbell’s peers during shows in Kansas City. That dissonance between what we see and how we wish to remember someone can be rough.

In March 2011, Kris Kristofferson performed at the Music Hall with Merle Haggard. It was Kristofferson’s second performance in Kansas City in two years, following a show at the Uptown Theater in April 2009. At the Music Hall he had a cold, which added deterioration to a voice that has lost much of its register and heft. It made for some discomforting moments, but overall the concert was gratifying. Here’s a passage from my review of the show:

“A few times he found a semblance of his old timbre but mostly he was resigned to singing in a growl, which occasionally lapsed into a raspy croak. He seemed chagrined a few times, even changing the lyric to one of his most beloved songs to ‘help me make it through tonight.’ But each time he wisecracked about his voice, his audience bathed him in applause.”

Barry Lee, host of the weekly “Signal to Noise” on KKFI (90.1 FM), attended that show, and at The Star’s music blog, Back to Rockville, he commented: “A nice, laid-back retrospective from two artists who have nothing more to prove. Sometimes it’s OK to rest on your laurels when you’ve earned them the way those two have.”

Lee will be attending the Campbell show, and he said he sees it more as a chance to honor and appreciate Campbell and his career than a night of light entertainment.

“We’re, in a sense, paying our last respects by giving of our time and money to see the artist one final time,” he said. “There are no expectations as far as how proficient the performance is going to be, and there shouldn’t be. In my case, I’m not there solely to be entertained, but also to say goodbye in the best way an artist will appreciate it: by standing up at the end and giving him or her a last ovation for a career well-done.”

Some still have it

There is plenty of proof that infirmity or age don’t always matter, starting with Willie Nelson, 78, and Haggard, 75, who still perform with polish and warmth.

So does Ray Price. From a review of Price’s show at Knuckleheads last June: “He is 85, and he ambles a little slower than he used to, but halfway through the first verse it was already evident that time hasn’t taken the same kind of toll from one of the best voices in country music. It still has range; it still has nuance and power; it still has an even register; and it still finds ways to emote whatever is required: love, heartache or betrayal.”

And then there was the furious Beatle-fest that Paul McCartney, then 68, put on at the Sprint Center in July 2010. In the middle of the show’s third hour he was screaming the lyrics to “Helter Skelter” like he was 28 all over again.

But there are performances that don’t do justice to a performer’s memory. Lee cited the final Kansas City show of Townes Van Zandt at the Drum Room in April 1996, when the songwriter was in the throes of alcoholism. Van Zandt was in no shape to perform.

“I chose not to go because I knew he was in bad shape,” Lee said. “I subsequently saw a film of the performance. He could barely get through the songs and left the stage in tears. That would have been too sad to see. You don’t want to remember an artist who means so much to you in that way.” Van Zandt died on New Year’s Day 1997; he was 52.

At that Drum Room show, Van Zandt opened for Guy Clark, a fellow Texas songwriter. Just last month, on March 2, Clark, 70, performed at the Folly Theater. He was sick with a cold and recovering from major surgery he’d had a few months before, all of which profoundly affected his performance, say those who were there. One of them was Bill Brownlee, business manager for the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, a music blogger and a contributing music reviewer for The Star.

“Guy apologized several times for his condition,” Brownlee said. “I got the sense that he felt ashamed and embarrassed by his inability to give the audience a proper performance. He had a severe cold or illness. He stopped songs to clear his throat several times. He often forgot the words to his songs.

“The concert couldn’t have happened without (his sidekick) Verlon Thompson. Guy’s guitar playing was weak, but Verlon’s a guitar wizard. And Verlon’s gentle prodding allowed Guy to maintain his dignity. But Guy played two or three new songs, a positive indication that he remains artistically engaged. If it wasn’t already evident, I’m glad I attended the show.”

That seems to be the prevailing sentiment for Campbell and the Goodbye Tour, especially (but not exclusively) among baby boomers, who are taking the chance to appreciate one of their generation’s heroes while they have the chance, a chance that isn’t always anticipated. Anyone who skipped the Levon Helm show in Kansas City in July 2010 probably regrets missing it even more these days, given the 71-year-old musician’s death from cancer last week.

Campbell is defying his illness and giving his fans one more chance to connect with him live, relive his music history and say their farewells. No matter what happens, or doesn’t, as he takes his last bow, he deserves in return all their grace and appreciation.

“I think Glen’s doing this at the right time and with class,” Lee said. “He doesn’t need the money. He just wants to say goodbye and relive the applause and love from the audience one more time. Not every performer gets to take that final bow. God bless him.”