Glen Campbell, with Instant People
at the Hanover Theatre,
Worcester, Mass. (11 January 2012)

The aging process can still shock us. Oh, sure, we know that the calendar pages turn. We understand that we get older. But somehow we forget that the passing of time affects our favorite artists as well. We expect those folks to continue to resemble the younger versions who are forever frozen on those old album covers, or as we remember them from concerts and television variety shows in the 1960s and '70s. After all, they were the people and the music we listened to as we grew up ourselves.

Back in the day, we lost a few of them to sudden, gone-too-soon incidents: to drug overdoses, suicides, vehicle crashes or the occasional crazed lunatic wielding a gun and a copy of The Catcher in the Rye. Now we're beginning to lose our musical heroes to disease and more natural causes. It's a tough truth to accept.

Singer, songwriter and guitarist Glen Campbell is now 75. He has announced that he's been diagnosed with the beginning stages of Alzheimer's disease. He has recorded his final studio album, Ghost on the Canvas, and is currently on a goodbye tour. This news came to me as being sad and tragic, and yet brave and wonderful all at once. I'd never seen Glen Campbell in concert before. How could I not go, now?

The beautiful Hanover Theatre in downtown Worcester was packed with fans obviously feeling the same way. When the lights dimmed, five young musicians took the stage and began to play. Hey, where's Glen? must have been the question in many minds. The opening act turned out to be Instant People, Glen's band. In fact, three of its five members are Campbells themselves. Ashley (banjo, keyboards, guitar, vocals), Cal (drums, guitar, vocals) and Shannon (guitar, vocals) are Glen's youngest children. (He has a total of eight, from four different marriages.) With Siggy Sjursen on bass guitar and Ry Jarred on lead vocals and lead guitar, Instant People provided 30 minutes of marvelous music. They performed six original numbers, beginning with "Into the Wonder" and "Sapphire." These tunes were received with polite applause. Together the performers created a nice sound with vocals that blended well. Ry was soft-spoken and seemingly shy as he introduced the songs; but he grew quite confident in leading the group, once the music took over.

With the driving beat of "Abbot Waits," Instant People began to showcase its individual and collective talents. The result was a combination of rock and country with pleasant contemporary vibes. This was music with wide appeal, and the audience began to respond positively to it. For the next several songs, Cal Campbell removed himself from behind the drum set to pick up a guitar and join his bandmates for a delightful, more acoustic approach. The group concluded their set with "Waiting on Sunday," another great piece. This is a quintet that is just getting started. It's so fresh and new that it doesn't yet have a CD for sale, although an MP3 download of "Abbot Waits" is available on Amazon; and that song and a few other selections can be heard for free on the Instant People website. I hope to buy a CD of their music someday, so that I can revisit it and enjoy it again.

We were told that after a brief intermission, Glen would take the stage. "Brief" turned into a 25-minute break. It was long enough that the two women in front of me, antsy with too much time to waste, both whipped out their electronic devices to give themselves something to do during the void. One played solitaire. The other checked email and sent a few text messages before landing upon a game of Scrabble, where she attempted to use up some of her letters to form the word FLAND. She became rather flustered when she learned that it wasn't a real word. Really: if these two needed something to do, why couldn't they have walked around the theatre to absorb some of its glamour? A visit to the restroom, even an unnecessary one, could have made for a lovely saunter. The Hanover never fails to impress me.

When the room darkened again, the members of Instant People returned to the stage. They were joined by musical director and keyboardist T.J. Kuenster, who has worked with Glen Campbell since 1977. Then, suddenly, there was Glen himself, dressed all in black: his jacket adorned with subtle sparkles that glistened whenever he turned under the spotlights. He opened with "Gentle on My Mind." It was reassuring to hear that his voice still held the unique lilt that we remembered from oh, so long ago. As he would do throughout the evening, Glen clearly relied on the teleprompters at his feet for the lyric lines, as he sang and strode back and forth across the width of the stage. But even if the words didn't always come automatically, his fingers knew exactly what to do with six guitar strings. He picked out some nice riffs in that first song.

It was followed by more hits of the late 1960s: "Galveston," "Try a Little Kindness," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" and "Where's the Playground Susie." Glen seemed to be having a great time up there. When he invited the audience to sing along on a chorus of "I Can't Stop Loving You," we were eager to join him and his colleagues. He told us a story about John Wayne before singing "True Grit;" then warbled a wonderful rendition of Hank Williams' "Lovesick Blues." Daughter Ashley came forward with her banjo to go neck-to-neck with her father on "Dueling Banjos." What a treat!

Glen withdrew to the wings for a few minutes, and his band filled the void with its own version of "Hey Little One." The sibling voices of Ashley and Shannon Campbell were especially melodic here. By now, the young people had proven themselves trustworthy in the eyes of the audience. They were rewarded with generous applause.

When Glen returned, we saw that he had exchanged his black jacket for a similar one in a striking, electric blue. Now it was time to showcase his new album, Ghost on the Canvas. He began with the title song and continued with two more selections from it: "It's Your Amazing Grace" and "Any Trouble." Then it was back to the oldies with "Didn't We." Glen's guitar tech handed him a Hamer 12-string, and soon the veteran performer was picking out the signature beginning of "Southern Nights." I had temporarily forgotten how much I had liked that song, back in the disco days of the late 1970s. All we needed were some glass-studded balls, twirling from the ceiling.

Now it was the band's turn for a brief off-stage reprieve. Glen and T.J. offered a duet on "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress," yet another tune penned by the master, Jimmy Webb (who was also responsible for "Galveston," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" and "Where's the Playground Susie"). When the rest of the musicians came back, everyone launched into "Country Boy (You Got Your Feet in L.A.)." Glen really shined on his instrumental verse with this one. People had been sporadically acknowledging his guitar work all night, but "Country Boy" earned the loudest praise.

With the house firmly on his side, Glen won the crowd over completely with "Wichita Lineman." I know it was the song I had been most waiting for. He got a standing ovation for his effort. The main portion of the concert ended with the rousing "Rhinestone Cowboy." Now the disco balls dropped from the ceiling and spun, shooting slivers of light dancing around the theatre walls. Glen got the audience to sing every chorus, loudly, and he appeared to be enjoying our sound, as he held his microphone out toward us. "Like a rhinestone cowboy / Riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo / Like a rhinestone cowboy / Getting cards and letters from people I don't even know / And offers comin' over the phone." And here the man stood, right in front of us! (A similar effect happens when Billy Joel ends his shows with "Piano Man.") What a great finish. And of course, another ovation was in order.

The two-tune encore once again featured selections from the Ghost on the Canvas album. The first was "In My Arms," which Glen said he wrote for his wife. The final song was "A Better Place." Its powerful lyrics dropped a huge damper of reality upon us. Up until then, we'd been able to turn aside the elephant in the room. We had been having fun, listening and singing along to the music we knew. But now Glen was describing his forthcoming journey to that "better place" (like the "better home" in that old gospel tune, "In the Sky"), and the last verse was all too autobiographical. "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." Suddenly the sad truth had risen to the surface. Though the musical message was an apt way of ending the evening, there was hesitation from the audience to accept it. Perhaps everyone was stunned by Glen's honesty. Perhaps no one wanted the book to close just yet. But after a lull of some seconds, a few people rose in tribute, and others began to follow. Eventually the full audience was standing and cheering Glen and his bandmates as they lined up, then bowed and walked off the stage together, arm in arm.

Care-givers often say that familiarity with favorite music is one of the few pieces that remains clear in the minds of Alzheimer's patients. Isn't it ironic then, that one of its sufferers can summon up and offer us his own music, perhaps for one of the last times? It's trite to say that the evening provided us all with "a trip down memory lane" ... but maybe that's just what it was: for Glen, for his children and on-stage friends, and for everyone listening to them. The result was indeed a remarkable and memorable night of both old and new music, from both known and new music-makers, and yes, a chance to say goodbye to a legend.

Here's hoping for the best for Glen Campbell, and also for a bright future for the young group Instant People, which has been provided with a wonderful but poignant way to come before the public.

by Corinne H. Smith
21 January 2012

[ visit Glen Campbell online ]

[ visit the Instant People website ]