Glen Campbell at the Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago

By Mark Guarino

You could shut your eyes and be in the era Glen Campbell came from, hear a performer do a surf rock melody, then pour his heart out in a love ballad. There was country yodeling, prickly rock guitar solos, a little bit of jazz thrown in of course, the corny jokes. This is the type of wild variety Campbell brought to television audiences in the heyday of his career, and it was the same Friday night at the Old Town School of Folk Music.  

Campbell fully represents a time in country music when self-effacing showmen, not brooding studmuffins, ruled. Although his cleancut image helped soften the country twang for pop audiences (the lush string sections helped too), it was Campbell’s expert guitar playing that gave him a career. He came from rural Arkansas (“didn’t have electricity — had to watch TV by candlelight,” he told the crowd), but he was more than a country picker. His slick, sophisticated playing can be heard on the premier recordings of the ‘60s by the Beach Boys, the Righteous Brothers, Elvis Presley, the Monkees, Ricky Nelson, the Mamas and the Papas and a litany of others.   

At the late show Friday, the second of two sold-out performances, Campbell’s guitar playing did not hesitate. Standing the entire 75-minute show and never resting his instrument, he knocked out extended guitar solos that matched speed with precision (“Galveston”), had the delicate inflections of jazz (“By the Time I Get to Phoenix”) and rocked with steely control (“Try a Little Kindness”). He is 69 but his playing had an infectious, lively spirit of some inner youth.   

The 18-song set was a testament to the good taste that resulted in his successive hits. Campbell’s choice of songwriters gave him material that suited his likable singing style. Laying off drugs and alcohol made him rediscover his yodeling chops, he said, going on to demonstrate on two Hank Williams classics, “Lovesick Blues” and “Long Gone Lonesome Blues,” the last song featuring him jumping up and down, unhinged. On other compositions, borrowed from Conway Twitty, John Hartford, Allen Toussaint and Campbell’s longtime collaborator Jimmy Webb, his singing was masterfully understated, he created the illusion these songs were written this week.  

What continues to give Campbell his appeal is that he is an “aw shucks” kind of guy. He apologized for butchering the English language during his rambling, but often very funny, monologues. Still the variety hour host, he introduced his daughter Debby so she could sing a few tunes, then later joined her for the Everly Brothers harmony duet, “Let It Be Me.”   

But the biggest surprise came when he decided to try out a five-song Beach Boys melody. It wasn’t perfect, as he stopped and started again, tried out different octaves to avoid the high notes and directed the band to chug along with him. There was no point to it either, other than Campbell was once a temporary replacement for Brian Wilson and he played on the band’s classic album, “Pet Sounds.” He didn’t trumpet either fact, the point seeming to be: why not? Like everything else that evening, it was a challenge, but draped in casual cool.

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