“Let’s see if we can turn your crank!” Gordon Lightfoot greeted the audience at Packard Music Hall on Friday night.
Such words would’ve sounded cutesy—even sarcastic—coming from a young heavy metal band. But for 77-year old Lightfoot, they meant it was time to get down to serious business.
Now in his sixth decade of performing, Lightfoot’s been there, done that—and looks like it. He’s racked up five #1 hits in the States (with five Top Tens and 13 Top 40s) and sixteen #1s in his native Canada (18 Top Tens and 21 Top 40s). He’s notched 16 Juno Awards and five Grammy nominations, recorded over twenty studio albums and issued several live discs and compilations (including ‘70s bestseller Gord’s Gold) and earned himself a spot in the Songwriters Hall of Fame alongside fellow troubadours Jim Croce, James Taylor, Paul Simon, John Fogerty, Billy Joel, and Elton John.
The Orillio bard was in Warren for his The Legend Lives On tour.
It’s an appropriate title: Lightfoot underwent a tracheotomy in 2002, suffered a stroke in 2006, and was mistakenly reported dead in 2010. While such ailments aren’t entirely unexpected at Gordon’s age, he’s no less a trooper for having endured them.
Back by a four-piece band, Lightfoot eased through two forty-minute sets (with an intermission) peppered with familiar folk songs and soft rock favorites, starting with 1978’s “Sweet Guinevere” and 1968’s “Did She Mention My Name?”
From the get-go it was evident Lightfoot’s voice isn’t what is used to be. Gone is the husky baritone of old, supplanted by a gentle rasp that’s a little rough around the edges. The rocking-chair creak might’ve caught some fans by surprise—but Lightfoot’s been singing this way for years now, and those who’ve been paying attention knew what to expect.
So ‘90s entries “Waiting for You,” “Drifters,” and “A Painter Passing Through” were sung in a vulnerable midrange, while ‘70s standbys “Christian Island” and “Beautiful” were delivered in a delicate speak-sing not unbecoming an almost 80-year old.
“I just love to work,” confessed Lightfoot, who stood front-and-center the entire show.
“We enjoy coming down here, getting our work permits together. We’re doing ten shows in twelve days.”
If Gordon’s pipes are a little rusty, his guitar chops certainly aren’t. Alternately plucking six and twelve-string Gibson acoustic guitars, Lightfoot crafted lovely measures with dexterous, syncopated fingerings and flat-pickings (capo applied as needed). Carter Lancaster provided all the leads and fancier fret work, courtesy an unplugged Breedlove and electric ’67 Gretsch Country Gentleman (which lent a Byrds / Buffalo Springfield twang to the mix).
Lancaster replaced longtime Gordon guitarist Terry Clements, who passed in 2011.
The band was rounded out by bassist Rick Haynes (Fender Precision) and drummer Barry Keane (Pearl and Premiere drums with Zildjian and Sabian cymbals), who locked up early and laid down reliable rhythms for the sparkling guitar arpeggios. Michael Heffernan created piano, string, and pedal steel sounds using his Roland and Yamaha synthesizers (stacked one atop the other at Haynes’ right elbow).
Lightfoot said he wrote Summertime Dream (1976) smash “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” after scanning newspaper (and Newsweek) clippings about the doomed ore freighter—which sank during a Lake Superior storm. 1974 chart-topper “Carefree Highway” oozed as much wistfulness and wanderlust as ever.
The second act started with elegant ’93 offering “Drink Yer Glasses Empty” and thoughtful ’75 deep cut “Now and Then.” Gordon (now in a burgundy dinner jacket instead of royal blue vest) reached back to his 1966 debut for “Ribbon of Darkness,” then leapfrogged into the ‘80s for an introspective “14 Karat Gold.”
The crowd sang along with the obligatory (but awesome) “Sundown,” paving the way for “I’d Rather Press On,” “Rainy Day People,” “Let It Ride,” and “If You Could Read My Mind.” Lightfoot and friends encored with “Early Morning Rain” and “Cold on the Shoulder.”