At 80 years of age, Gordon Lightfoot is going strong, at least strong for someone that age. The heyday of Lightfoot’s gentle ballads and lyrical stories are long past, but his mostly baby-boomer fans don’t mind. He’s still very popular on the concert circuit, many who are repeat customers. These days, his concert tours are small numbers of show, then a break, then head out again. And repeat.
His voice is thinner and he’s frail-looking, but don’t let that fool you into thinking you get a lesser performance. He comes to perform. According to a recent Rolling Stone interview, he meticulously prepares for each concert, checking the sound at the venue and going over his guitar tunings, one string at a time, and getting comfortable at the venue. Instead of just showing up to play, he spends hours at the venue, settling in, getting the feel of it, learning how the sound travels.
The interview also said he had been ill last year around his birthday and he wouldn’t stay in the hospital any longer than absolutely necessary, as he had concert performances lined up in just a few days.
Ahead of the concert, I read some recent online concert reviews and some fans are obviously dismayed at what age has done to his voice. Expecting his strong, but variable vocal ability with delicate range of the old days is unrealistic. Back in the singer/songwriter days, his voice was his passport, it carried listeners on his poetic journeys.
Sometimes it was hard to distinguish the words he was singing, except for his five or so signature songs, you knew the words before he even sang them. There wasn’t a lot of singalong, which surprised me a bit, but on “If I Could Read Your Mind,” the crowd was into it.
Online, his earlier concerts were divided into two set, but we got one long set, lightened by a couple of songs and he flipped around the order.
His band was made up of true professionals, they didn’t play the notes exactly like the records, many of the songs were a verse or chorus shorter, which he told us he was doing, but the band supported his performance, never upstaging him. The arrangements were first-rate, finding the sweet spot of each song. Only once, did the band cut loose a little, he let the lead guitar player take the spotlight on “If I Could Read Your Mind.”
Among the other songs he played were: “Sweet Guinevere,” “Don Quixote,” “Spanish Moss,” “14 Karat Gold,” “Shadows,” “Beautiful,” “The Watchman’s Gone,” “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” “Carefree Highway,” ” Cotton Jenny,” ” Sundown,” “Rainy Day People” “Let it Ride,” “Restless,” “Baby Step Back” and “Early Morning Rain.”
As the show went along, he got chattier in between songs, and showed his sense of humor. He related the experience of playing at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 when a fight broke out between Bob Dylan’s manager and the festival boss over whether Dylan’s drum kit would be allowed onstage, meaning Bob was going electric. We know the outcome of that wrestling match.
Someone asked me if Lightfoot still had it. For 80, and traveling his long road, he still has lead in his pencil.