By the rivers of his memory

Campbell and daughter Ashley had some fun doing "Dueling Banjos"; he played his guitar behind his head.
Campbell and daughter Ashley had some fun doing "Dueling Banjos"; he played his guitar behind his head. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)

Glen Campbell, afflicted with Alzheimer’s, gives a performance at Penn full of sadness, enthusiasm, and still-great guitar.

Posted: September 17, 2011

In June, Glen Campbell announced that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and that his new album, Ghost on the Canvas, would be his last.

The legendary session man had played on 1960s recordings with Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, and Elvis Presley before going on to a hit-heavy solo career. But thanks in part to songs written for him by younger artists such as Jakob Dylan and by the Replacements' Paul Westerberg, Ghost on the Canvas finds Campbell, 75, facing down mortality with a gravitas that might surprise anyone who's familiar with the singer and guitarist from "Rhinestone Cowboy" or his 1969 TV show, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.

On Thursday, Campbell came to the Irvine Auditorium at the University of Pennsylvania on one of the first dates of what's being billed as his "Goodbye Tour." Backed by a family band that included daughter Ashley on banjo and keyboards, and sons Nicklaus on drums and Shannon on guitar, Campbell played a good-natured 75-minute set that included all the AM radio hits, from Allen Toussaint's "Southern Nights" to Chris Gantry's "Dreams of the Everyday Housewife" to Jimmy Webb's "Wichita Lineman."

The mood on Ghost is sober and serious-minded, similar in tone to the American Recordings albums Rick Rubin produced for Johnny Cash in the decade before his death in 2003. But Campbell was in an entirely different, more happy-go-lucky frame of mind at Irvine, the recently refurbished 1,200-capacity hall, where he played to a less-than-capacity but enthusiastic crowd of his chronological contemporaries.

"I'm not Minnie Pearl, but I'm just proud to be here," he said on taking the stage to John Hartford's "Gentle on My Mind." With that, he immediately displayed the undiminished guitar-picking skills that made the Delight, Ark., native a standout among the '60s group of Los Angeles studio players known as the Wrecking Crew.

Campbell, who stands 6 feet tall but cut a larger-than-life figure as he moved about the stage in black shirt and jeans and blue blazer, had other ready stage patter, too. "I'm happy to be here," he said, before singing a satisfying hooky version of Tom Petty's "Walls," a song he covered on 2008's Meet Glen Campbell. "But at this age in life, you're happy to be anywhere." That carefree quip was coupled with an uncomfortable chill, however, when he turned to his longtime sideman T.J. Kuenster and asked: "How old am I?"

With Campbell's condition came an element of risk. Despite the aid of a Teleprompter at the foot of the stage, he still occasionally lost his place, and frequently seemed in danger of rambling aimlessly between songs until the band kicked in and kept the show moving. Campbell has been plagued by short-term memory loss and was described as "absent-minded" in interviews in the years before his diagnosis.

What he certainly does still know, however, is how to play guitar, which he did with great dexterity all night long, even showing off by holding his instrument behind his head during a kind-of-corny take on "Dueling Banjos," during which he squared off against his daughter. Vocally, Campbell's set was less consistent, though it was unclear how much of that was due to the poor sound mix in the high-ceilinged room and the singer's cavalier way of holding the mike as he roamed the stage like a cock of the walk.

The other thing that could not be clearer is how much Campbell still enjoys doing what he does. Physically he seems robust, and showed himself capable of both hitting the high notes on Webb's "Where's the Playground, Susie" and "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress" as well as going low on Roy Orbison's "Dream Baby."

Maintaining the focus to deliver the emotional intensity of the Ghost on the Canvas tunes was often too much for him. He did pull it off, however, on "A Better Place," the Ghost cut he cowrote with producer Julian Raymond, which he performed as an encore accompanied only by acoustic guitar. In a clear, strong voice, he confronted his affliction head-on: "Some days I'm so confused, Lord / My past gets in my way / I need the ones I love, Lord / More and more each day."

That's a universal predicament if ever there was one, made all the more poignant by Campbell's clear need of the assistance of the ones he loves, and the ones who love him. It's a potentially lurid, exploitive situation for Campbell as curiosity-seekers gawk at the afflicted performer to see if he'll be up to performing to his previous high standards on a long concert tour.

But to anyone who posits that Campbell would be better off not putting his failing memory and somewhat baffled demeanor on display for paying customers, there's also a counter-argument: Why shouldn't he keep doing the thing he loves, and for as long as he still can?


Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628, deluca@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, "In the Mix,"

at www.philly.com/inthemix.

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