“Everything we’re going to play tonight was written in the 20th century,” remarked Gordon Lightfoot near the onset of his return concert last night at the Singletary Center for the Arts.
For the numerous elders in the audience, those were words of comfort. For nearly 50 years, Lightfoot’s catalog of pop-folk songs – which last night shifted from overtly sentimental ballads to tunes with vastly darker narrative undertows – have been rightly revered. As such, a promise from the singer to feature a repertoire from the last part of the last century seemed an enticing proposition even though the concert also proved certain technical elements from the past simply can’t be recaptured.
Let’s get the show’s most outward blemish out of the way. While Lightfoot’s songs have aged beautifully, his voice simply hasn’t. His vocals have been getting thinner and reedier over the past decade. Last night, Lightfoot lost considerable definition, especially in his upper register, which made songs like Carefree Highway and Cotton Jenny an obvious struggle.
But as a friend correctly summarized after the show, “He worked with what he had.” To that end, there were several songs that actually took on a new, sage-like maturity within Lightfoot’s limited vocal reach. One, quite ironically, was 1972’s Don Quixote. Unintentional as the song’s theme and intent were for the occasion, it was still apt for Lightfoot, at age 75, to inhabit the soul of Cervantes with a self-empowered drive that “shouts across the ocean to the shore till he can shout no more.”
Another example was Restless, one of several tunes pulled from 1993’s Waiting for You album. It came across as sleekly gray and decidedly autumnal meditation orchestrated by the light-as-air keyboard support of Michael Heffernan.
The hits were proudly welcomed, too. The sea chanty epic The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald was acknowledged by Lightfoot as a “responsibility” to play (a nod to the 29 very real lives that perished in the wreck) while the breakthrough ballad If You Could Read My Mind still possessed a quiet but devastating sadness that earned the singer a standing ovation.
Despite the vocal liability, Lightfoot showed no signs of any impending retirement. In fact, the final line of the evening’s closing song – the title tune from Waiting for You – suggested an audience rapport triggered by a still adventuresome spirit: “Waiting for you to say ‘let us begin.’”