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October 24, 2011 5:51 pm
Ordinarily Glen Campbell’s “Final Farewell Tour” would invite scepticism, there being many famous pseudo-retirees who have embarked on lavish farewell tours only to pop back up on stage a few years later. Hello again Barbra Streisand, George Michael, Cher ...
In Campbell’s case, however, the farewell is genuine. In June the Arkansas-born singer of “Wichita Lineman”, “Rhinestone Cowboy” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” revealed he was suffering from Alzheimer’s. He is 75 and has been recording since the 1950s, first as a Los Angeles session musician working with everyone from Phil Spector to Frank Sinatra, then as a highly successful solo artist, notching up more than 45m record sales. A distinguished retirement beckons.
His show at the RFH was touching, occasionally magnificent, but awkward too. “Gentle on My Mind”, a tender meditation on themes of betrayal and memory, was an artful choice with which to open the set. But Campbell was agitated by his monitor not working properly, and the song’s flow suffered accordingly.
He spoke with poignant good humour about Alzheimer’s (“I used to stand up here and tell jokes but I forgot ’em all”), but his performance suggested a deeper unease about its effects. “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” found him worrying that the bass was out of key and then mugging at the audience for cheap laughs as if to compensate. When, playing guitar, he failed to keep up with his banjo-playing daughter Ashley in a bluegrass duel, the wisdom of his decision to retire from the stage was inescapable.
Like Macbeth’s player that “struts and frets his hour upon the stage”, it wasn’t a smooth evening. But happily the strutting shaded the fretting. Tracks from his new album Ghost on the Canvas were impressively sturdy. A supremely dramatic country-rock solo in “Try a Little Kindness” showed his guitar-playing can still touch the heights. He relished the demanding Jacques Brel-style vocal phrasings of “Dreams of the Everyday Housewife”, one of his favourite songs. Behind his unassuming style has always lain – still does – a deceptively sophisticated singer.
His backing band included two sons alongside daughter Ashley. They made for a supportive ensemble, papering over the set’s patchier moments. Campbell may not be bowing out at the top of his game – but this was an honourable farewell from an illustrious performer.
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