LAST night, several thousand of us said so long to Glen Campbell. His Hollywood Bowl concert was a kind of cross between a straightforward farewell concert and a posthumous tribute, since the entire first program was made up of other musicians paying homage to various aspects of his work. And the farewell part is not entirely conventional: Campbell is saying goodbye because of an Alzheimer's diagnosis.
Despite a very mixed first half -- more on that later -- Campbell's portion of the program was positively triumphant, and makes clear why we'll miss him and his like in years to come. Some of the highlights included his opening number, "Gentle on My Mind," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," his cover of Hank's "Lovesick Blues," and of course Jimmy Webb's "Wichita Lineman," one of the greatest American songs in any genre. It's hard not to smile hearing him sing "Rhinestone Cowboy" -- his last number before the encore -- though that song is not exactly in the league of the others.
(He's one of the rare figures of the AM radio of my youth whose work stands up really well.)
And his guitar playing, especially his solos on his very twangy Stratocaster, took me completely by surprise. Great, fleet-fingered rockabilly-inspired stuff. Great stage presence too.
The first half was much more mixed, despite fine backing by LA roots combo Dawes. The only major misstep was putting Courtney Taylor-Taylor of the Dandy Warhols on the bill -- he's a real lightweight, here out of his vocal range, and didn't bring much to the proceedings. Lucinda Williams sounded a bit tired and under-mic'ed, but she's one of the greatest inheritors of Campbell's era. Kris Kristofferson's voice has become a bit ragged, but it was good to see him and to have him perform one of the best Campbell-penned numbers, "Less of Me." (The Everly Brothers' version of that song is a favorite.)
Part of what made these opening songs feel scattered was the range of styles Campbell has been involved with because of his early years as an L.A. session player -- the pure pop of the Monkees ("Daydream Believer"), the teenage symphonies of the Beach Boys ("I Know There's an Answer"), even Elvis (a whole-group version of "Viva Las Vegas.")
Some of the best stuff had little directly to do with Campbell: Jackson Browne captured the regret of one of his best songs, "These Days,"and Jenny Lewis' ironic and nuanced "Just One of the Guys" reminded us of what a great melodist she can be.
(The indie fan inside me feel the need to mention that GC played not one but two Scud Mountain Boys songs -- Joe Pernice's old band covered both "Wichita Lineman" and "Where's the Playground Susie?")
But all of these memories, good and bad, fled when Campbell himself came out in a rhinestone jacket, guitar in hand, for the show's second half. At 76, he's at the top of his game. For this kind of veteran performer, the words, "and here are some songs from my new album" can be depressing indeed, but even his new stuff sounded great. (Here is a full review by Randall Roberts of the LA Times.)
Let's hope we all can go out with the class and dignity with which Campbell has.