Ailing Glen Campbell Shines in London, Flaws and All
Glen Campbell strode onto the Royal Festival Hall stage and launched confidently into one of his many signature hits, "Gentle On My Mind." It was an apt greeting. The 75-year-old had flagged this farewell tour by letting it be known that he was diagnosed at the end of last year with Alzheimer's disease. But this show was imbued with a gusto that rose far above its occasional flaws, and made it obvious that the world still lays gentle on his mind.
This extensive British itinerary follows the release of a quite outstanding valedictory album, "Ghost on the Canvas," brilliantly and lovingly produced by Julian Raymond, and Campbell's first studio record to make the U.K. Top 30 for some four decades. "Ghost" also landed at an impressive No. 23 on the Billboard 200. Campbell is among friends here, just as he has been around the world since the 1960s. The brave announcement of his affliction not only helps shine a light on this dreadful disease that can only be positive, but allowed Glen's fans to show that they still appreciate him, come what may.
By way of demonstrating how the condition makes its own evil rules, this show was in marked contrast to another London performance just three days earlier at the BBC Radio Theater, to air on the Radio 2 network next month. With the greater pressures of recording, Campbell was often confused and repetitive, but even through that, his undimmed zest was amiable and his voice still soared as elegantly and expressively as it ever did on record.
In the spotlight and in life, family can help. With a period of rest, and the continuing presence of the sons and daughter who played both in opening act Instant People and then literally at their father's shoulder in his band, Campbell was like a different person 72 hours later. Far more assured, if understandably reading his lyrics from an teleprompter, he repeated himself only once. If his still-intricate lead guitar lines occasionally missed their target, one could easily overlook that in the cause of celebrating one of America's great talents of pop's heyday.
Campbell made frequent admiring comments to the writer who fueled both this set and his very career, Jimmy Webb. "Galveston" made an early appearance, "By The Time I Get To Phoenix" came soon afterwards, and later "Wichita Lineman" and perhaps the highlight of the entire evening, an achingly plaintive piano-and-vocal take on "The Moon's A Harsh Mistress." Campbell and Webb's interlocked creative relationship remains intact even in the singer's twilight years.
He took a misstep or two on an instrumental duet with his daughter Ashley, who toted banjo to his guitar on "Duelling Banjos," but the results were as charming as his impersonations of Elvis and, well, Donald Duck. "I used to stand up here and tell jokes all the time, but I forgot 'em all," he chuckled, without a hint of chagrin.
More than a simple catalog show, the set included a good handful of songs from "Ghost on the Canvas," from the title track to Paul Westerberg's suitably bullish "Any Trouble," currently playlisted on Radio 2 in Britain. Warmly welcomed back for an encore ("I heard all the noise and thought I'd come and see what it was," said the old showman), he delivered an exuberant take on Teddy Thompson's "In My Arms" and finished poignantly with "A Better Place," the new song he wrote with producer Raymond. The farewell was as emotional as the performance was heroic.