Glen Campbell is running out of time. We’re all running out of time, but with Glen Campbell, you really know it. In the coming years, memories will drain out of him or jumble together in his mind. If the dreadful illness he’s suffering from runs its usual, unstoppable course, Campbell may lose most of his power to communicate. No cure is known for Alzheimer’s disease, and it’s almost inevitable that Campbell will suffer the same horrible symptoms that millions of others have experienced.
Campbell bravely let the world know he had Alzheimer’s disease. And he announced he would make one final album (2011’s Ghost on the Canvas) and tour one last time. His “Goodbye” tour included two shows this week at the Rialto Square Theatre in Joliet.
At the concert on Thursday evening (Jan. 25), Campbell never directly said anything about his illness or his imminent retirement from making music. It didn’t need to be said. You could sense the deference, love and admiration that Campbell’s backup musicians (including three of his children) and the audience of longtime fans felt for him. And Campbell kept saying how glad he was to be there and thanking everyone for showing up. That’s boilerplate stage banter you might hear from any musician, but it took on a whole different depth of emotion this time. Campbell seemed to be thanking all of the fans who had ever come to his concerts and bought his records, thanking them one last time while he still could. It was a sad occasion, but it was also a beautiful celebration of this man’s terrific career as a singer-guitarist who transcended genre boundaries and recorded some of the great songs of the ’60s and ’70s.
Campbell showed some of the effects of his illness and age, but he seemed remarkably sure of himself. It helped that he had such a good band playing behind him, and it must have been comforting for him to know that his children were there at his side. But he was still essentially standing alone out at the front of the stage, a 75-year-old man who’s losing his memory facing an auditorium full of people. It appeared that he was reading lyrics off three screens arrayed along the front of the stage — his need for the prompter was more obvious when he performed a few of his new songs than when he did the old standards. Whenever one of the new songs started, he would declare, “I like this song!”
Campbell seemed uncertain where to stand. He kept moving the microphone stand away from center stage, as if he were being drawn to the side for some reason. But when he sang one of the old songs, you could almost see the memory of those words and melodies clicking into place and bringing a smile to his face. His voice was a little weathered, but still strong and confident. At a few points — including the last note of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” — his voice ascended into a falsetto and hit a high, lovely “ooh.”
During “Galveston,” composer Jimmy Webb’s lyrics took on a new poignancy, as Campbell sang about being afraid of death: “Galveston, oh Galveston, I am so afraid of dying/Before I dry the tears she’s crying/Before I watch your sea birds flying in the sun/At Galveston, at Galveston.” As the song ended and the applause welled up, Campbell started playing the opening riff of “Galveston” all over again on his guitar — until his daughter, Ashley, interjected: “We just played that, Dad.”
Campbell spent much of the show with his blue Strat strapped over his neck, holding onto it for the moments when he would play a guitar solo. (He complained a couple of times about how heavy that guitar felt on his shoulders.) When those moments came, Campbell looked down at the neck of his guitar — and you had to wonder: Can a man suffering from Alzheimer’s disease remember all those notes? Campbell hesitated a few times, but once his fingers started moving, they really moved, and the notes rang out loud and clear. All of the night’s guitar solos belonged to Campbell, and they offered plenty of proof of his skills.
At one point during the concert, Campbell apologized for playing something not quite right — whatever it was, it was a barely noticeable mistake. Campbell told the crowd, “Always remember this, friends: If you do it perfect, they’ll want it that way every time.” Wise words worth remembering from a great musician.
Glen Campbell finished the show with a lovely, wistful song from his new record, “A Better Place,” which he co-wrote with producer Julian Raymond. Campbell sang: “One thing I know/The world’s been good to me/A better place awaits, you’ll see.”
SET LIST: Gentle on My Mind / Galveston / By the Time I Get to Phoenix / Try a Little Kindness / Where’s the Playground Susie / Didn’t We / I Can’t Stop Loving You / True Grit / Lovesick Blues / Dueling Banjos / Hey Little One (sung by Ashley and Shannon Campbell) / Any Trouble / It’s Your Amazing Grace / Country Boy / The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress / Ghost on the Canvas / Wichita Lineman / Rhinestone Cowboy / Southern Nights / A Better Place