Gordon Lightfoot, who turns 75 next month, brought a mix of his monster hits and some poignant, lesser-known tunes from his voluminous past to an adoring crowd Friday night at Kleinhans Music Hall.
The rail-thin Lightfoot is now an elegant figure with a chiseled profile and straight, shoulder-length silver hair, far from the athletic curly-haired Canadian folkie who churned out such popular songs as “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Sundown,” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” back in the 1970s. But somehow the beloved songs that never made it onto AM radio – from what he called his “old repertoire” – conveyed the most emotion as he stood center stage and worked his way through a challenging 26-song setlist.
His appearance on the stage drew screeches and whistles from the crowd, who were utterly silent during his first two songs, “The Watchman’s Gone,” and “Waiting For You.” Lightfoot’s voice, missing its once-honeyed upper and lower tones since a near-fatal illness in 2002, started off raspy but warmed a bit as he sang. On some tunes, in some phrases, his power returned; in others, his superb band, made up of guitarist Carter Lancaster, keyboardist Michael Heffernan, bass player Rick Haynes and drummer Barry Keane, filled in with supportive sound.
His phrasing has changed from velvety and lingering to somewhat staccato, and some of the songs seem slightly faster-paced than expected.
Few in the crowd seemed to care.
Lightfoot delivered almost every one of the hits people came to hear, along with some banter. He introduced “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by saying that he used an old Irish tune, a dirge, for the melody. “I had the dirge, I had the urge and I had the chords,” he said. He later confessed that “In the Early Morning Rain,” started out as an early morning train, but once he decided it was “too common” and added the precipitation, Elvis recorded it.
Lightfoot was spare with his usual banter in the first half of the show, singing two opening songs before saying just “I’m Gordon Lightfoot, and reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” a remark attributed to Mark Twain.
In the second half, Lightfoot loosened up considerably, sharing some thoughts of previous shows at Melody Fair, being unable to make his way through the surging crowd at the Aud to meet Elvis (who had already recorded “Early Morning Rain”), and even telling a few corny jokes.
Among the prettiest tunes were the evocative “A Painter Passing Through”; “Winter’s Night,” complete with sleighbells; “As Fine as Fine Can Be,” which Lightfoot wrote for his daughter when she was young; and “If Children Had Wings,” which he wrote when he was separated from his children after the collapse of his first marriage.
The crowd went wild for “Rainy Day People,” and roared at the opening chords of “Edmund Fitzgerald.” Even the line about lakes Erie and Ontario in that classic Great Lakes song drew some yells.
Toe-tappers included “Baby Step Back” and “Cotton Jenny,” and Lightfoot switched up his usual pairing of “Ribbon of Darkness” and “Did She Mention My Name” by performing the ominous “Sundown” between them.
A quick encore consisted of “Old Dan’s Records,” not, as many were secretly and openly hoping for, “Canadian Railroad Trilogy.” But it was hard to be disappointed when Lightfoot lingered and then walked the length of the stage and back, charmingly leaning over to slap hands with eager fans who surged forward.