in performance: glen campbell

Glen Campbell.

A patron beside me Tuesday night as we were leaving the Opera House summed up the Glen Campbell performance that had just ended with a remark that was more like a sigh of relief than an exaltation of praise:

“Well, that wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be.”

And it wasn’t. Campbell has been on the road for more than a year since announcing that he had Alzheimer’s disease, so one couldn’t help but be braced for the worst. If you have ever had a friend or relative with Alzheimer’s, you know how merciless it can be. And there was no denying the toll that it has taken on Campbell, but many elements of the performance were both surprising and encouraging.

First, there was his voice. Campbell’s singing on this tour seems to have taken a bigger beating in the media than by the ravages of Alzheimer’s. Sure, his voice sounded a little crusty around the edges, a seeming effect of aging more than anything (Campbell is 76). But it revealed a conversational familiarity (which propelled the still-enchanting Wichita Lineman) and considerable range and reach (showcased best during a jubilant Try a Little Kindness).

Then there was his guitar work. Though a touch busy and disconnected at times, there were flashes of serious instrumental fire, as in the warm phrasing and tone during a solo that concluded the show-opening Gentle on My Mind and the solid twang that fortified Galveston.

All of this suggests that the show was essentially a hit parade. In many ways, it was. But there were several comparative surprises thrown in as well. Having used his well-known hit covers of Jimmy Webb tunes to essentially bookend the show, Campbell dug deeper into the composer’s catalog for The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Last night’s version was presented as an elemental duet, with longtime keyboardist T.J. Kuenster providing the lone accompaniment.

Equally inviting was Paul Westerberg’s Any Trouble, one of the more cordial and hopeful interpretations from Campbell’s recent Ghost on the Canvas album.

The singer was shakier between songs. His banter was light-hearted but obviously confused. A few times, he had to be assisted by daughter/multi-instrumentalist Ashley Campbell in locating the right keys – and, at times, titles – of the songs he was about to play. But when the music began, it was as though a switch clicked on. Campbell was in tune and on cue – except once.

On Country Boy (You Got Your Feet in L.A.), everything derailed. Campbell lost his place and seemed unsure of what song he was singing. But just when everything seemed like a train wreck, he shut his mouth, shut his eyes and launched into an electric guitar solo that was simply breathtaking. One can only guess what spirit he was communing with at that moment.

In the end, this was a fascinating but undeniably flawed performance. Fans at the half-empty Opera House will have to decide for themselves whether a show with such scattered triumphs warranted ticket prices that topped out at $100. But in the program’s brightest moments, it was clear that the Wichita Lineman was still very much on the line.

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