March 17, 2014

Bittersweet and timeless, Gordon Lightfoot displays quiet dignity at Uptown Theater

Gordon Lightfoot may not have attained the stature of Elvis Presley or Bob Dylan, and his voice now is distressingly frail, but the veteran Canadian artist’s bittersweet performance Sunday night at the Uptown Theater upheld his deserved reputation as one of the most significant folk songwriters of the last several decades.

Veteran Canadian folk artist Gordon Lightfoot displayed quiet dignity at an exceptionally subdued concert Sunday at the Uptown Theater.

One longtime fan in the audience of about 700 admitted the presentation was akin to “watching a radio.” Lightfoot and a four-piece backing band performed with an economy of movement. With the relaxed precision of accomplished studio musicians, the band faithfully reproduced every nuance of the original versions of 26 songs.

One component, however, was dramatically different. The pinched singing of Lightfoot, 75, was distressingly frail.

The confident baritone heard to best effect on the 1970 hit “If You Could Read My Mind” has been reduced to a ravaged groan. He compensated with intelligent phrasing and emotive inflections, but it was occasionally difficult to decipher Lightfoot’s somber lyrics. His weakened instrument probably explains the concert’s extremely low volume.

Even in his commercial prime in the early 1970s, Lightfoot sounded like a man acutely aware of the unrelenting passage of time. More than 50 years after his recording career began, Lightfoot’s vast catalog of songs has come to possess additional resonance.

During a grim interpretation of “Shadows,” for instance, Lightfoot, with the weary conviction of a man who knows his days are numbered, sang about a “wicked wind” that chilled him “to the bone.”

Many of Lightfoot’s songs evoked a different era. The amorous gallantry of “All the Lovely Ladies” was typical of his anachronistic perspective. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” his ode about an ill-fated ship that sank in Lake Superior in 1975, resembled a medieval ballad.

Lightfoot leavened his forlorn outlook with a handful of songs that weren’t entirely doleful. The boozy “Baby Step Back” and a curiously abbreviated rendition of “Carefree Highway,” a 1974 hit about “the morning-after blues,” bordered on lively. “Beautiful,” a tender song of eternal love, balanced the bleak conclusion of the love affair chronicled on “If You Could Read My Mind.”

Patter was kept to a minimum, but as he introduced a fine reading of “Early Mornin’ Rain,” Lightfoot shared an interesting anecdote about his disappointment in missing a scheduled meeting with Elvis Presley. The song about a down-and-out transient has been recorded by several luminaries, including Presley and Bob Dylan.

Lightfoot may not have attained the stature of those iconic figures, but Sunday’s bittersweet performance upheld his deserved reputation as one of the most significant folk songwriters of the last several decades.

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