Review: Glen Campbell's farewell at the Hollywood Bowl
The post has been corrected. Please see note at bottom for details.
By the time Glen Campbell waved his farewell to the crowd at the Hollywood Bowl in his final L.A. performance Sunday night, he’d traveled a lot of ground. He’d cleaned his gun in Galveston, pondered Phoenix and what would be awaiting him there. He’d imagined greeting a crowd “riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo,” and climbed to the top of electric poles on “Wichita Lineman.”
But Wichita is a long way from Hollywood, and the closest thing to rodeo riders in Los Angeles are celebrity wranglers. That didn’t stop Campbell, 76, from offering glistening solos that spotlighted why he was one of the premier session guitarists in 1960s Los Angeles, or how he became a superstar in the early 1970s. Even as the age spots dotting the back of his hands reveal the decades, his fingers are still able to float over his guitar neck with a fluid ease and his voice can hit notes that lesser vocalists, as evidenced earlier in the evening, can barely brush against.
Campbell is in the home stretch on his worldwide farewell tour, which has taken him across America to deliver one more sparkling smile, one more genuine Arkansas thank you. It’s one final chance to play his string of country pop hits of the '60s and '70s, among them the singalong classics “Southern Nights,” “Rhinestone Cowboy” and “Wichita Lineman,” and tip his hat to those whose music influenced him.
He did it at the Bowl with an effortless grace, and had he not announced in 2011 that he was living with Alzheimer’s disease, few in the crowd would have been the wiser. In fact, he was sharper and more precise during this gig than he was last year at Club Nokia, where he kicked off the Farewell Tour.
The night began long before Campbell and his six-piece band walked onto the stage, though. As the sun faded behind the Hollywood Hills, a cast of singing admirers lined up to pay homage, all supported by the expert L.A. country rock band Dawes.
The group, whose languid country twang fit right in with Campbell’s style, performed a few of its own songs before launching into the first tribute to the man of the hour, their version of Campbell's first single from 1968, the Chris Gantry-penned song “Dreams of the Everyday Housewife.”
The early-evening tributes, like the trajectory of Campbell's life, had their peaks and valleys. Vocalist Courtney Taylor-Taylor of the Portland, Ore., rock band the Dandy Warhols did renditions of three classics on which Campbell played guitar, the Monkees’ hits “Daydream Believer” and “Last Train to Clarksville” and the Beach Boys’ “I Get Around.” He was startlingly unprepared for the challenge, and picked songs so far outside of his range that he could have been a randomly selected dude from the audience.
Country rock singer and songwriter Lucinda Williams followed, and even if her voice was nearly as flat as Taylor's for her three songs, she'd earned her place onstage by the sheer force of her songs. Ditto Kris Kristofferson, whose commanding presence helped conceal his vocal failings and the casual demeanor with which he delivered “Highwayman,” “Less of Me” and “Just to Satisfy You.” (“You're a very forgiving crowd,” he said between numbers, acknowledging his occasional lyrical stumbles and off-key moments.)
Jenny Lewis, the former singer of L.A. rock band Rilo Kiley whose work as a solo artist is even better, was the first vocalist of the night, in fact, able to hit all her notes. And, as always, her presence onstage injected a dose of joy into the night's festivities, performing, among others, a Lefty Frizzell song, “She's Gone, Gone, Gone.” Jackson Browne joined her onstage for a stellar version of “Let It Be Me,” a duet that Campbell made popular when he recorded it with the great Bobbie Gentry in 1968.
For his part, Browne shined onstage as he and Dawes (who has served as his touring band) offered an exquisite interpretation of the Beach Boys' “I Know There's an Answer.” And Browne's “These Days,” written when he was 16 years old and made famous by the late Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico, has over the intervening years quietly become a classic -- and Browne illustrated why.
As is the case with these kinds of tributes, the lot of the openers came out onstage for one final number -- “Viva Las Vegas.” Few realize that it's Campbell's guitar lick as a session player that powers Elvis Presley's hit single -- without that riff, the song's nothing. With Browne singing lead and Lewis and L.A. vocal duo the Watson Twins offering harmonies and synchronized dance moves, the song offered a glimpse of Campell's influence in a single three-minute burst.
Wearing a blue suit and his best Sunday cowboy boots, Campell walked onstage after an intermission to a standing ovation. He's a man who learned harmony as a kid by singing with his brothers in rural Arkansas, who taught himself guitar and fathered his first child while still a teenager, who spent his 50-plus year career in L.A. His is a classic American tale worthy of a country song: Young man moves to the big city, makes his mark, achieves worldwide fame and fortune, struggles with demons and drugs, finds God and, finally, peace.
These universal stories are what made Campbell famous, and what he and his band, which features three of his children -- Ashley, Shannon and Cal -- delivered. That and his dimpled-smile, down-home charm, both of which remain intact even if his mind reveals an occasional stutter or stumble. Over an hour-and-a-half of hits, he repeatedly displayed his personable self.
Truth be told, though, the most amazing thing about Campbell's set, which kicked off with “Gentle on My Mind,” continued with “Galveston” and featured all of his hits, was how curiously inspiring his deficiencies were. A kind of grace resided within the disconnect between Campbell the man and Campbell the singer. His Alzeimer's revealed itself most obviously between each song, when after a little banter he would be told what he was to play next. When that happened, this look of pure joy appeared on his face, as though he were playing the song for the first time.
That reality of a mind gradually abandoning its body is tough to watch, but as the first notes of, for example, “I Can't Stop Loving You,” began, Campbell's face grew soft and you could almost see the biology of his brain matter accede to the power of his muse. There was no question which was winning. His muse reigned supreme with each glorious solo. Were they more ragged and stumbly than in his prime? Yes. But that didn't matter.
All that mattered was the spirit at those moments, and the truth of the adoration that filled the Bowl, both of which Campbell seemed to allude to in his final song of his final set of his final Los Angeles concert, “A Better Place.” “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.” Those words never felt more accurate than as he left the stage. The ovation at the Bowl confirmed he’s got a lot of support.
For the Record, 1:35 p.m. June 25: An earlier version of this post said Glen Campbell kicked off his Farewell Tour last year at the Nokia Theatre instead of Club Nokia.
-- Randall Roberts
Photo: Glen Campbell performing at the Hollywood Bowl on Sunday, backed by his daughter Ashley on banjo, as part of his Goodbye Tour. The show was a celebration of his extraordinary five-decade-plus career and release of his acclaimed final studio album, "Ghost on the Canvas." He was joined by guests Dawes, Jackson Browne, Kris Kristofferson, Jenny Lewis, Courtney Taylor-Taylor and Lucinda Williams. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times.