Lightfoot kicks off tour with two sets of humility, tenacity

by Ryan Snyder

 Gordon Lightfoot kicks off his tour in Greensboro as new guitarist Carter Lancaster looks on. (photo by Ryan Snyder)

No one familiar with Gordon Lightfoot would expect the legendary Canadian songwriter to ever ham it up on stage, particularly not while eulogizing his friend and lead guitarist of 40 years. On March 15 at the War Memorial Auditorium, in his first show since the passing of Terry Clements less than a month before, Lightfoot was pithy in his words, but with a poet’s soul. “A few weeks ago we lost a member of the family,” Lightfoot said without a crack in his voice. “Terry passed on to his reward.”

Then again, the 71-year-old Lightfoot has had a lot of practice dealing with the consequences of aging over the past decade. He nearly died from an aneurysm in 2002 and in late 2007, his manager of nearly 20 years passed away. A year after, his first guitarist Red Shea did as well. Lightfoot was even the target of his very own death hoax last year, a period when Clements’ own failing health was becoming more apparent. So what does one do when it becomes apparent that their featured sideman of four decades may no longer be able to perform their duties? Begin grooming contingencies, of course. Seconds after recognizing Clements, Lightfoot introduced to the half-capacity Greensboro crowd guitarist Carter Lancaster, the man taking over the seat to his left long occupied by Clements.

In their first show together, the band’s “new” lineup didn’t fully gel right away. The customarily toe-tapping “Cotton Jenny” sounded thin, even beside the gauzy show opener “Sweet Guinevere.” Throughout the first set, the compositions were quiet and compact, though the band did spring to life for “Never Too Close.” Lancaster in particular took the opportunity to assert his own sound, letting the vibrations of his strings bleed together a smidge to create an even sweeter backdrop for Lightfoot’s lyrics of disenchantment. The band seemed to be in a state of near-constant verbal and nonverbal communication, confirming cues and assignments, but maybe it was the audience’s reactions that were most self-affirming for the players. The breezy intro to “Sundown” drew a round of enthusiastic cheers and whistles from the mostly graying crowd, which seemed to have lit a spark in the band from there on.

A lot of attention from his fans has been directed towards Lightfoot’s diminishing vocal capabilities over the last few years. His once stout baritone (the one featured in the 30-second TV spots promoting this show) has waned to a fragile, almost nasally croon, like a father singing his children to sleep. It’s come to match his gaunt, yet elegant frame much more closely, but Lightfoot’s fading voice is not nearly the detriment it’s sometimes made out to be. It started becoming apparent on his 1998 release A Painter Passing Through, but his potent delivery of the album’s title track spoke of a man who’s become the embodiment of the fragility of the human condition. Every few lines in his lyrical reflection on aging ended with him reaching for a breath — as antimimetic as an expression can be — and ended with Lightfoot muttering a few words of encouragement to himself. The stalwart Lightfoot pressed forward, giving an affected “uhntwothreeföh” to lead into “Spanish Moss.”

He’s long held the reputation of being mildly curt and aloof when performing, focusing instead on the intensity of his songs and, subsequently, his stage presence. He’s still a commanding figure onstage, but as he’s aged, he engages his audience more frequently. He told the occasional joke, laid the premise for some songs (“Hangdog Hotel Room,” he says, reminds him of the time he used to hang with Jerry Jeff Walker), he talked of missing his children when they were taken to France for two years, and entertained requests. Repeated shouts for “Pony Man” were finally met by a willing, albeit vaguely skeptical Lightfoot. “You really want to hear ‘Pony Man,’” he said, as he fiddled with his capo to buy bassist Rick time to brief Lancaster on the nuances of the piece.

He opened his second set with his epic “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” the band as a whole seeming much more in tune and making the blemishes on Lightfoot’s voice not so outstanding. The songs suddenly became a little more drawn out and Lancaster’s solos occurred with greater frequency and feeling, remaining faithful to the sentiment instilled in them by Clements, but also drawing on his native bluesiness that shined through most in second set closer “Restless.”

Lightfoot may have lost a little in vocalization, but few rockers can retain the vigor of their youth into old age. While Lightfoot seemed to have chosen a more sedative path in his sound, there’s still an indelible sagacity that comes out in his every word that will never fade.