LOS ANGELES — On Thursday night at Club Nokia, the question, "How was Glen Campbell?" took on a deeper meaning than whether he and his six-piece band were any good or not.
The legendary Arkansas-born singer and guitarist, who rose to prominence in Los Angeles in the 1960s and '70s and played on some of the most important recordings ever to come out of this city, announced in June that he's living with Alzheimer's disease and, realizing his capacities were starting to diminish, announced his retirement with a farewell tour.
Campbell's a man blessed with a twinkle in his eye and a spark in his voice, which helped him become not only a celebrated hitmaker — "Wichita Lineman," ''Rhinestone Cowboy" and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" among them — but also a crossover talent in television and film. The idea of watching a fading star onstage attempting to retain control, though, has the makings of a rough evening for everyone involved. It's hard, tapping the toes along to mortality. But, then, everyone isn't Glen Campbell.
To get the answer out of the way and move on: Campbell was the same funny, relaxed, charismatic guy he's always been, and his fingers still rolled out those smooth Stratocaster lines that took songs along winding instrumental roads before graceful resolution. Or, as Campbell humorously acknowledged after a particularly nuanced solo, "I've got a few licks left — I've been practicing."
Those roads were rockier, though; throughout the hour-and-a-half set, his fingers at times stumbled, as did his mind, which on a few occasions lost track of lyrics on the TelePrompTer, and, in banter between a number of songs, absent-mindedly dwelled on a particular quote from Minnie Pearl. "I'm proud to be here," he said, before adding, "I'm proud to be anywhere."
Those details are offered not to shine light on the darkness, but to offer an environment in which to illuminate the beauty and warmth at the heart of the evening, and to better appreciate the inexhaustible spirit that runs through certain mortals, despite the odds. The fumbles on Thursday didn't detract from, but added to, the wonder of it all, because the misfires were inevitably followed by long runs of chrome-toned solos that conjured ghosts of great twang guitarists past — Chet Atkins' wit, Merle Travis' patience — while infusing them with the rock 'n 'roll urgency that is Campbell's trademark. It's a real thing, the superhighway that connects Campbell's muse to his fingertips.
That stubborn voice emerged victorious over and over again: On "Southern Nights," the great Allen Toussaint song that Campbell drove to the top of the charts in 1977, the guitarist strapped on his (astounding) twelve-string and let loose; on "Ghost on the Canvas," a song written by Paul Westerberg that's on Campbell's new album of the same name, his singing voice hit notes squarely.
Added to the power was Campbell's band, which isn't just a band. Three of them are his children, all in their 20s: Shannon Campbell on guitar, Ashley Campbell on banjo and keyboards and vocals, and Cal Campbell on drums (augmented with Glen's longtime music director, T.J. Kuenster, on keyboards, Ryan Jarred on guitar and Sigve Sjursen on bass). As a result, the power of blood and love manifested itself in ways much more profound than mere instrumental acumen.
When he traded solos with son Shannon, you could hear the teacher swapping roles with the student; when he pushed through "Dueling Banjos" with daughter Ashley, his acoustic guitar tangled with her picking to create a single, joyous thing. He turned his back on the crowd during "Galveston" to lock into a groove with son Cal on drums.
It was thrilling too to watch the spirit rushing through Campbell. At times these gusts of musical inspiration blew harder than his fingers could contain, like a delicate kite weathering a windstorm. But then the clouds would break and the guitarist and his muse would reveal blue-sky lines as effortlessly as he did on "Wichita Lineman" in 1968. The man who stepped onstage and kicked off his first solo hit in 1967, "Gentle on My Mind," had less hair but just as much insight, and the knowledge that this man was part of the legendary Wrecking Crew session team responsible for hits by Phil Spector and the Beach Boys' classic hits, among others, added extra weight.
The reflex in situations such as this is to praise a man's "courage" for standing onstage knowing his capacities are starting to fail him, but courage isn't the right word. It's not necessarily brave to keep doing what you've done your whole life.
The magic was in the way Campbell, his family, and the crowd, many of whom had grown up with the singer, respected the muse despite its decaying state. How they defiantly, beautifully kept that conduit to the sublime open wide enough to deliver a clear, honest message about both the important and unimportant things, about how one becomes another as time passes.