Folk icon Gordon Lightfoot puts on a crowd-pleasing show, despite vocal struggles
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My relationship with Gordon Lightfoot’s music goes back nearly 40 years, to the days he played concerts in hockey arenas in northern Ontario. The Canadian folk icon stopped at the Michigan Theater Wednesday night and, for me at least, it was a walk down memory lane.
Granted, the stroll was bittersweet, as health programs and age have taken a toll on Lightfoot’s once-rich baritone. It was sometimes difficult to listen as he strained to hit the notes, especially in the higher register.
There’s no denying that Lightfoot, now 72, has had a rough several years. It’s a wonder he’s still touring, but, gentlemanly road warrior that he is, he keeps plugging away in the best show-must-go-on tradition, and he deserves plenty of credit for it.
He’s also earned the love and respect showered on him by the Ann Arbor audience, members of which seemed happy to overlook any vocal shortcomings in order to be in the presence of someone who is, lest anyone forget, a masterful songwriter. Not only is his poetic, storytelling style getting harder and harder to find these days, I was reminded how beautiful his arrangements are, the interplay of guitars, keyboard and drums darned near orchestral at times.
During his nearly two-hour show (with intermission), Lightfoot played the hits, including his signature, and still-haunting, “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” “Sundown,” “Ribbon of Darkness,” “If You Could Read My Mind” and more.
He also reached into his catalog for gems such as the rarely performed “Home From the Forest,” “Did She Mention My Name?” and “Don Quixote.” The epic “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” capped the night, with a single-song encore, “In My Fashion,” closing the show.
Lightfoot seemed to divide the set list fairly evenly between older and newer material, with the lesser-known “Sea of Tranquility,” “14 Karat Gold,” “A Painter Passing Through” and “If Children Had Wings” included in the mix, as was Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells.”
Throughout, he was ably backed by a four-man band that included newcomer Carter Lancaster, filling the shoes of the late guitarist Terry Clements.
Given the circumstances, a lesser performer might have decided to retire. But Lightfoot’s fingers can still make the six-and-12-string guitars sound exquisite, and so what if the voice is a little shaky. He’s still up there doing his thing, audiences are more than happy to come and hear him do it, and for that he gets my vote. He’s playing 18 shows in his current tour. In the words of the woman behind me, “Way to go, Gordo!”