Royal Festival Hall, Saturday October 23 2011
So this is it then. The very last time. The man whose music appeals to more generations than most people would ever even meet and converse with in a lifetime- sadly, now, after a life of hellraising and being the archetypal wild country boy, forced into retirement by encroaching Alzheimer’s. I suppose, though, that 75 is quite a good age in rock’n’roll, or country, or easy listening. Sadly this also happens to be the very first time I’ve ever seen him, but from the evidence on offer tonight, it doesn’t seem like tonight is any different from what others have seen before. Except, of course, a little more emotional.
It’s a short set but in no way are the audience short-changed, and in that time, the only man who can claim to have worked with Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys and John Wayne in one career provides us with ample reminders of just why he is so revered. And for a man struck down by a debilitating disease, his smooth vocals and fleet-fingered guitar playing, which launches into overdrive during opener Gentle On My Mind and never lets up, seem as sharp as ever. In fact, the matter of his health is only ever raised once (“I’m getting’ to be forgettin’”) and is only apparent when asking his beautiful daughter Ashley (keyboards and banjo) what key a song is in, or when repeatedly mentioning how he managed to amuse Wayne during the shooting of True Grit with his Donald Duck impressions.
It’s also important to remember that while he may be known primarily for interpreting the songs of others such as Jimmy Webb (By The Time I Get To Phoenix, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress and the evergreen Wichita Lineman) Allen Toussaint (Southern Nights) and Larry Weiss (Rhinestone Cowboy), and all of those are performed with style and gusto tonight, he occasionally writes his own tunes too: both Your Amazing Grace and A Better Place, from his latest and final album Ghost On The Canvas, the Paul-Westerberg-penned title track of which is also played, demonstrating his overlooked skills in that department.
And while the chills run, naturally, down my spine and everyone else’s during Lineman- that arrangement, those strings, that guitar solo, those lyrics, the very picture painted- it’s A Better Place that ends the evening on an unbelievably poignant note, as he remarks “the world’s been good to me”, but ruminates that after four marriages, eight kids (three of which are onstage tonight) and innumerable records sold worldwide, there might still be somewhere else to go where one engenders a little less suffering and a little more serenity, and that he’ll get there sooner rather than later. There are extra seats around the rear of the stage at the RFH tonight, and as the eternal Rhinestone Cowboy takes his bow for the last time, in the UK at any rate, no single one in the house is left unoccupied, the entire audience (in which I spotted friends from across the diverse range of musical subcultures) rising in simultaneous admiration of a man who quite literally did it all and more.
Befittingly, the mood is definitely one of celebration: if there has indeed been a load of compromisin’ on the road to his horizon, Campbell got there eventually on his own terms, helping to co-invent or at least popularise a whole new subgenre – ‘countrypolitan’ - along the way, one which filled my own childhood with distant promises of a strange, adult world called America. What the genre will be like without him is a more worrying prospect, but all things must pass, and I’m honoured to say I was here tonight to witness it.
DARIUS DREWE SHIMON