Gordon Lightfoot: Song for a Winter’s Night
A year ago this month at the Moody, Mary J. Blige preempted my SXSW with a high-heeled soul stomp unequaled by any female performer I’ve ever witnessed. A 75-year-old Canadian folksinger is no match for a fortysomething hip-hop queen from the Bronx, so Gordon Lightfoot’s stopover at the same venue last night resulted in a stark study in contrasts.
“I’m Gordon Lightfoot and reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
So opened the Ontario native on a night whose temperatures must have made the great white Northerner feel right at home. A drafty hall two-thirds full of AARP reverence rustled its approval and over the course of two 50-minute sets and a short intermission absorbed the twilight of a storied career in mostly hushed awe.
“We’re from Toronto and we don’t smoke crack cocaine,” rejoined Lightfoot directly afterward in reference to the now notorious mayor of said metropolis. He bookended the evening with the same sentiment and a grab bag of rib-ticklers. “Here’s a song called ‘Let’s Meet Over By the Rock Pile Where I’ll Get a Little Bolder,’” he cracked late in the set. His quips were genuinely funny in the sad face of mortality and its effects on aged entertainers.
Lionel Hampton’s taxidermied Austin City Limits taping in 1999, George Jones in the round at the 2011 Austin Rodeo (or rather round the bend), Lemmy’s squeak on Motörhead’s new Aftershock: Never say die took root in vaudeville, but doubtlessly originated with Greek theater. Gordon Lightfoot has ceded all but the faintest whiff of nuance to his still weightless tenor, which in its heyday flitted almost birdlike – fanning, fluttering, cooing. Even then, he swallowed his words with Canadian humility, but the pull of his lyrics offset against the soar of his singalongs bent your ear and emotions towards him. Now, he sings as if he’s got a mouthful of tacks, never biting down on anything and thus receding from the listener.
He and his veteran fourpiece gamely picked through his 1975 calling card, Warner Bros. compilation Gord’s Gold, all-too-age-appropriate “Song for a Winter’s Night” and its yang “Summer Side of Life,” plus “I’m Not Saying,” “Did She Mention My Name,” “Sundown,” “Cotton Jenny,” “Don Quixote,” “Carefree Highway.” Not for the first or last time in the concert, I was hard pressed to understand a single word past its introduction of “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” up in the balcony.
He recapped Elvis Presley knighting his composition “In the Early Mornin’ Rain” and covered Marty Robbins covering his “Ribbon of Darkness,” whose last notes were finished pitch perfectly by a man sitting behind me.
“That sounded pretty good to me,” exclaimed Lightfoot from the stage downstairs.
A melancholy “Drifters” elicited the audience’s most rabid response, followed shortly thereafter by the short, single encore of “Beautiful.” If Gordon Lightfoot no longer sounds so attractive, as another legendary Canadian once sang, long may he run nonetheless.