Monday, January 9, 2012

Music: Glen Campbell at Town Hall, Saturday night

Text and photos by George Molé 

I had too much to do this weekend, and a concert was not on the agenda, but there it was in Friday's newspaper: Glen Campbell would be appearing at Town Hall the following night--Saturday, January 7.

Campbell's music had been part of my youth, in the country section of the eclectic soundtrack of my family's life, along with John Denver, Marty Robbins and whatever was playing on WHN, New York's great and lamented AM country-western station.

Spending our Augusts camping with other city people at Lake Welch, a little jewel set in forested hills not even 45 minutes from the Bronx, we became country folks, at least a little bit and for a little while, and put some distance between ourselves and the decaying urban neighborhood where we lived the rest of the year. Music was part of the experience.

So Glen Campbell was with me from way back. His "Southern Nights" coming from the speakers of my sister's old radio-cassette player on a warm northern night. Or my brother-in-law sitting by the fire with a guitar and doing a pretty fair "Gentle on My Mind."  (When my mother would hear the latter song, she'd roll her eyes and mutter, "Oh, the song with the 42 verses.")

And if some of Campbell's work was a bit shallow and poppy--though always catchy--some (especially his interpretation of songs by legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb) was brilliant.  And this would most likely be my last chance to see him--it had been announced recently that he is suffering from Alzheimer's disease, and that his current CD, Ghost on the Canvas, and his current tour would both be his last.

When Campbell took the stage, I was a few rows away.

As he did one after another of his well-known songs--beginning, if I recall, with "Gentle"-- a listener would not have known that he has that vicious disease.  The familiar voice was strong and clear and, except for one minor stumble, he sang the lyrics as they're meant to be sung (although I read in one review that he was helped by the presence of teleprompters, which I did not notice, on stage).  When he spoke to the audience, though, he seemed more awkward, sometimes seeming to lose the thread of his jokes or to mumble some of his words.  This might have been the effects of his illness or, more comforting to imagine, simply fatigue or the mannerisms of a man more at home singing than talking.

It's easy to forget that Campbell started out as a well-respected guitarist on other people's records, including the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, and his hit records didn't do much to highlight his guitar work.  But in this performance, Campbell took a soaring guitar solo in almost every song, his fingers dancing like Nureyev across the strings, these interludes alone worth the price of admission.  May he always know that fretboard as he knows it now.

Campbell's best songs are full of melancholy and loss, the stories set against American landscapes, often rich in American place names, sung simply and lovingly to simple melodies.  Most of these--"Galveston," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," "Wichita Lineman"--were written by Webb.  I once heard Webb refer to them as his Rand-McNally songs, because of all the place names.  (And, in an odd coincidence, Webb was performing on the same night as Campbell's Town Hall show, at the Iridium, a club a few blocks away.)

But "Gentle on My Mind," by another writer--though it has no place names in its title or lyrics, only in the surname of its author, John Hartford--with its finely-drawn landscape, belongs in the same category.  It doesn't really have 42 verses, but it's verbally dense, full of striking images: 

Though the wheat fields and the clothes lines
And the junkyards and the highways come between us...

Was the distance from you to someone thought about ever more heartbreakingly real?

All of these songs are masterful American poetry, the kind you understand and appreciate more the more you've lived.  And though Campbell didn't write them, it took his voice to make them live.  He did them all in this performance, thankfully, and they were as powerful as they've ever been.

Campbell's band, which also served as the opening act, included three of his own children--two sons, Cal and Shannon, and a beyond-lovely daughter, Ashley.  The kids displayed a touching solicitude for their father, and he for them; at one point, when Campbell left the stage rather suddenly, or so it seemed to the audience, his daughter said something to the effect of, "My dad's going to take a break now, but we're gonna do a song for you."  They did, and Campbell was back for the next number.  At another point, Campbell walked over to her and told the audience, "This is my little girl!"

A great performance, a great musician.  Pray for his recovery, and for a cure, as I will do.

And after leaving the theater, I couldn't resist photographing...wait for it...

...yes, the cracks in the dirty sidewalks of Broadway.  I know every one.

If you don't get the reference, check out the lyrics to "Rhinestone Cowboy"--which he also sang at this show.

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At January 18, 2012 at 5:57 AM , Blogger Lisa said...

Not a bad way to spend your time...

At January 18, 2012 at 9:36 AM , Blogger Barry Reitman said...

Thank you, George. I wasn't there, but now I was there. This reminds me so much of the Brian Wilson tribute concert of a few years ago, where you couldn't help but wonder if Brian really understood fully what was happening. I had no idea that Campbell was on Pet Sounds - perhaps the most wonderful collection of American popular music ever recorded.

At January 27, 2012 at 3:20 PM , Anonymous Barbara Lee said...

Very nice tribute to Glen Campbell. Thank you for sharing.

At June 16, 2012 at 5:24 PM , Anonymous Hella K. Bloch said...

Glen Campbell....his songs and his way of reaching us through always felt like he was part of us, and we were his family he was playing and singing for. He shared his voice and the tone of his guitar for many years. Yet, he did it all with the unusual modesty which was truly Glen Campwell. All the best wishes to him and his loving and devoted family


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