You could feel it in the air Wednesday night at UB’s Center for Performing Arts.
Glen Campbell’s fans were nervous for him as they waited for his show to begin.
You could see it in their eyes. They knew the 76-year-old singer and guitarist suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. They knew what effect that horrible disease can have on a person’s behavior. They were worried how it would all play out on a brightly-lit stage in front of thousands of people. They knew there was no place for Glen to hide.
In the end, the night’s performance turned out just fine.
It was far from a perfect show. Campbell forgot some lyrics, wandered about the stage, made a few goofy remarks and at one point, started playing the same song twice in a row. But he also put on a very entertaining and powerful concert, one that had some of his fans wiping away tears after the last song.
His voice was very strong and clear on some songs; not so great on others. But he had fun joking with the audience – sometimes poking fun at himself and his waning memory skills. And his guitar work was nothing short of spectacular.
Someone forgot to tell his fingers that Campbell has Alzheimer’s disease.
On song after song, he fired off beautiful, high-speed solos that drew one ovation after another. When he was soloing on the six-string, it was almost like Campbell was lost in his own little world. He was like a young buck again, an excited young rocker just starting out as a Hollywood session musician.
“I’m happy to be here. You know that?” he said after one such solo, his face breaking out in a huge grin.
Packing 17 songs into an hour, Campbell showcased many of his most popular hits, including his great work with songwriter Jimmy Webb. He also performed several poignant songs from his brilliant, autobiographical 2011 album, “Ghost On The Canvas.”
Helping him through the night was a solid six-piece band that featured his lovely daughter, Ashley; his sons Shannon and Cal; and his 35-year musical director, pianist and buddy, TJ Kuenster.
It was touching, and at times, a bit funny, to watch his young daughter help Campbell through the show’s rough spots.
“Who wrote this one?” Campbell asked, as he prepared to play one of his biggest hits, “Galveston.”
“Jimmy Webb!” his daughter said.
“Who?” Campbell asked.
“Jimmy Webb!” she repeated.
“That’s right, Jimmy Webb,” Campbell finally agreed.
Campbell’s “Goodbye Tour,” which began more than a year ago, is a triumphant but very bittersweet end to a musical career that began some 70 years ago, when Campbell began to astonish family members and neighbors with his guitar abilities as a little kid in Billstown, Ark.
As a teenager, Campbell was already making a living playing dances and radio shows, and at age 16, he left his hometown to become a full-time professional musician. He moved out to Los Angeles in his early 20s, and – in addition to making a few minor hits under his own name – he became a very in-demand sideman.
Campbell joined pianist Leon Russell, drummer Hal Blaine, guitarist Tommy Tedesco (a Niagara Falls native) and other top musicians in the Wrecking Crew, an elite team of session cats who played on hits by Frank Sinatra, Simon & Garfunkel, the Beach Boys, Nat King Cole and countless other artists.
His first big solo hit was John Hartford’s delightful “Gentle On My Mind,” which Campbell performed as his opener Wednesday night. After that song hit in 1967, his career took off like a rocket, especially after the Smothers Brothers chose him to host their summer replacement show.
There are few hit songs more memorable than “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston,” the three big ones that Webb gave to Campbell in the late Sixties. Campbell sang all three Wednesday night.
Shannon and Ashley Campbell, who call themselves Victoria Ghost, opened the show with a nice 25-minute set of folk and country songs. Both are fine singers, and both of them share their dad’s talents with stringed instruments. Cal Campbell is a solid drummer.
A 15-minute intermission followed the opening act. Then, the stage went dark. The band members took their places. After that, we could see two security guys carefully leading Campbell to his spot at center stage. In his white sport coat, pink and black cowboy shirt, black slacks and black boots, he looked pretty good for an old codger.
Audience members, who filled about two-thirds of the place, seemed to be on the edge of their seats as he jumped right into “Gentle On My Mind.” About halfway into the song, Campbell unleashed a funky, sparkling guitar solo that had the audience going wild.
Perhaps the happiest moment of the night came when Campbell on acoustic guitar duetted with his banjo-playing daughter on a blistering first-rate version of “Dueling Banjos.” The song brought the house down, inspiring the first of several standing ovations.
Other highlights including another fine guitar solo on “Wichita Lineman,” a fired-up “Rhinestone Cowboy,” and a stark version of Webb’s “The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress,” featuring Campbell’s best vocal and his old friend Kuenster on piano.
The night ended on an emotional note with Campbell’s take on “A Better Place,” a deeply moving ballad from his last album.
There was no mistaking the song’s meaning.
“Some days I’m so confused, Lord,” Campbell sang. “My past gets in the way.
“I need the ones I love, Lord, more and more each day.
“One thing I know, the world’s been good to me. A better place awaits, you’ll see.”
With that, the old Rhinestone Cowboy took his daughter’s hand, bowed deeply at the waist, and left the stage.