(Originally published at BLURT.)
On Glen Campbell’s last two albums—his final ones, he says, as he’s been diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s—he covered songs by Paul Westerberg, Guided by Voices, Green Day, Foo Fighters, and a handful of other artists. And while those albums were universally well-reviewed in all the right hipster places, those reviews haven’t necessarily translated into a full embrace of his music by the Pitchfork set.
More’s the pity, but it explains why, at Campbell’s Milwaukee stop on his “Goodbye Tour,” I was one of the youngest people in the house. I’m 45, so that doesn’t happen much these days. And while my initial response to that was disappointment—I’d really hoped that Meet Glen Campbell and Ghost on the Canvas would expose Campbell to a younger audience—I soon realized that it was just as well the crowd was made up mostly of people who remember hearing and seeing Campbell during his glory days.
The show itself was simply one of the most joyous I’ve ever seen, with both Campbell and the audience reveling not in nostalgia but in the hard-earned satisfaction of lives well-lived and music well-played and brilliantly sung. Backed by Campbell’s longtime musical director T.J. Kuenster and Instant People—a five-piece combo including three of Cambpell’s children: Ashley, Shannon, and Cal—Campbell covered the entire scope of his career in 90 minutes, from 1968’s “Gentle on My Mind” through 1977’s “Southern Nights” right up to “It’s Your Amazing Grace” and “A Better Place” from Ghost on the Canvas.
Campbell’s decision to do one final tour while he still can is a courageous one, and the effects of the Alzeheimer’s were evident on and off the entire evening. He was openly confused when he was handed Ashley’s guitar instead of his own, which was being repaired, and on-going sound problems on stage rattled him more than they would have in his younger days. But he handled those moments with grace and humor—when he realized what was going on with the guitar, he deadpanned “Pardon me. I’ll just be a moment.”
If anything, the show was one of the most flat-out joyful experiences I’ve ever witnessed. Campbell kept repeating “I’m just so happy today,” and for every well-rehearsed showbiz joke, there were twice as many moments of unedited, unbridled enthusiasm; after the line “the spirits make love in the wheat field with crows,” in “Ghost on the Canvas,” he blurted “boy, I love that line,” and more than once he looked down at his setlist and said “Oh, I like this one!”
Of course, Alzheimer’s has nothing to do with Campbell’s voice and guitar palying, which were, if not as strong as ever, then surely stronger than they’ve got a right to be at the age of 75. He showed terrific vocal range in “Lovesick Blues” and “It’s Your Amazing Grace,” and his guitar work was a marvel, from the improved solo in “Galveston” to the well-known, written parts in “Wichita Lineman.”
The latter was the highlight of the show, one of those bucket-list moments where time stands still and the world stops. Jimmy Webb’s song is one of the finest of the 20th century, a masterpiece of direct lyric and elegant melody, and it’s forever going to be Campbell’s signature song. And when he sang the greatest line in that great song—“I need you more than want you/ And I want you for all time”—the effect was breathtaking, crystallizing into a single moment the complex, sometimes paradoxical emotions of the evening. Great art is eternal and immutable even if live performances are fleeting and our own lives are subject to both horrible twists of fate and moments of unexpected delight. Against all odds, Glen Campbell’s “Goodbye Tour” captures all of that.
Below is a clip of "I Can't Stop Loving You" from the Milwaukee concert. It shows both the strength of Campbell's voice and his unpredictable humor.