Glen Campbell at the Riverside Casino and Golf Resort
September 5, 2010, Riverside, Iowa
It was the smell of active cigarette smoke that made me feel a little unsettled. I suppose that’s a testament to the various laws that have been put in place for the past few years, prohibiting smoking in public places like bars and restaurants.
Public places other than casinos, which are exempt in my state.
I was walking aimlessly around the Riverside Casino, the one-armed bandits providing an endless G note from the continual chirp of electronic sounds.
Finally, I stopped and asked a casino worker to point out where Glen Campbell was playing that Sunday afternoon.
I was alone; nobody except a co-worker expressed much interest in seeing Glen Campbell. He’s about my age too, which points to the idea that Glen might not have the same appeal for those who don’t remember when songs like “Southern Nights,” “Wichita Lineman,” and “Rhinestone Cowboy” were saturating AM Top 40 after they’d already fried the country radio station airwaves.
I was one of the younger ones, believe it or not, as evidenced by the overwhelming mops of grey that graciously filled a “theatre” for Glen that probably served as a wedding reception area the following weekend, or maybe the casino’s own job fair. It was cold and dark in the acoustically dead banquet hall, and when the usher pointed out that my seat was housed in between two ladies in their late 60s, I asked if I could just sit alone in one of the empty seats a few rows back.
To say that Glen Campbell knew who the audience consisted of and where he was playing would be an understatement. Glen’s probably done enough of these things in his sleep that he can get away with mediocrity. But he cannot feign the spark that still rises on occasion.
For this afternoon it would be during the extended guitar solo that Campbell conjured up during “Country Boy,” a cleanly picked strut down his Fender Stratocaster that even prompted a “look at that old man go!” grin from his keyboardist/bandleader T.J. Kuenster.
Apart from that moment, and a few others that managed to catch fire, this performance was most definitely a by-the-numbers set that changes so infrequently, you’d only need to see it once.
But for Glen, even the repetitiveness requires a teleprompter.
It’s hard for me to say for sure, but there’s something amiss about Glen Campbell’s capacity nowadays. It wasn’t just the teleprompter; there were other moments that hinted Glen is now 74 years old. I noticed a few guitar notes that sailed into different keys, a few moments where Campbell just plain gave up playing after a few measures of trying to get the feel of the song, and a few rambling stories, including the one of why he kept popping throat lozenges (“I used to drink water. But T.J. has got me on these…So I don’t go…tinkle as much.”)
This is why Kuenster is there, not only to play keyboards and signal chord changes, but to make sure Glen stays on task. He is the same man that arranges Glen’s Branson, Missouri, show too. He also answers Glen when he asks “Who wrote this one T.J.?” and “What key is this one in?” and “We like the Foo Fighters, don’t we?”
Glen also has the benefit of several children working for him, and you get the sense that they’re with him because they know he needs a little extra care as of late.
Debby Campbell, Glen’s oldest daughter, has been with his touring band for over twenty years, and she plays the perfect fodder for Glen as June Carter Cash during “Jackson.” She pokes fun at her dad as he struggles to open water bottles while holding a microphone, occasionally missing a word or two of the classic.
At only twenty-three, Ashley Campbell is stunning, and she has carved out a bit of talent like her older sister from Glen’s gene pool with some great fingerpicking of her own. She plays with brother Cal Campbell in a band called Instant People, and she demonstrates some nice vocal prowess.
Yes, the Campbell girls are provided their own portion of the show, about fifteen minutes of the 75 minute set. There are no originals, just covers, including a rendition of Fleetwood Mac‘s “Landslide” on banjo with Debby handling some great harmonies.
Of course, Campbell himself voiced many covers – and it’s important to remember that his work prior to his own solo success came as a session player in Southern California, working with some other regulars under the moniker “The Wrecking Crew.” There’s a little bit of truth to that line “there’s been a load of compromisin’ on the road to my horizon” during “Rhinestone Cowboy,” the evening’s biggest hit.
“This song’s been very good to us. … Who wrote this one, T.J.?”
“Larry Weiss. … We like Larry Weiss!”
For over and hour, there were hits like this, usually ending with Glen’s exclamation of “Next song!” I couldn’t tell if those words were coming up on his teleprompter or if he was just really eager to get the hell out of that casino.
In the end, Glen got his money, we got our favorite hits and a chance to see Glen Campbell one last time before the long farewell begins at some point.
The fact that Campbell delivered a well intentioned, but obviously average, set of songs isn’t my main complaint. It’s the fact that we’ve put Glen and others on this well-paid yet seldomly rewarding string of casino dates instead of multi-generational theatre shows. And while I will partake in these types of casino events for the convenience of running through my bucket list of “artists to see before they stop touring,” I dream of a tour of national worship, like the old blues legends received in England back in the sixties.
But instead of adoring young fans trying to visualize their influences on stage, we’ve left them to their peers, a network of slot-playing retirees, eager to give away their nest egg and catch a show of old Glen Campbell hits before hitting the buffet.
So you see, I can’t say that I deserved better from Glen Campbell during his performance than what I got on that Sunday afternoon, but he certainly deserved better from us.