New York, NY

Town Hall - August 9, 2000


Gordon Lightfoot may be 62 and none the better for wear, but he could be a movie star. The singer-songwriter, who played his first New York City show in 32 years on Wednesday at Town Hall, has the same laconic appeal thatallows wrinkling leading men like Peter Fonda and Nick Nolte to maintain careers. He's a rugged guy who knows how to melt. The slow thaw defines his music and his enduring charm.

American listeners might not instantly associate Mr. Lightfoot with reticence, because his most famous song, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," is so long-winded. Mr. Lightfoot gave the ballad, perhaps the only sea chantey to become a major hit in the arena rock era, a straightforward reading midway through his set. In this context "Wreck" revealed its commonality with Mr. Lightfoot's other material. Like "Sundown," his trip to a rock-and-roll bordello, and "Carefree Highway," his ode to easy riding, "Wreck" captures high drama in sepia tones.

Mr. Lightfoot's melodies are the key to his transformation of bloody red into earthy rust. His lyrics mix colloquialisms with high-flying metaphor, but his music is fanatically centered. Phrases are short, inching up and down the scale to suit his stalwart baritone. At Town Hall the upper register showed the pinch of age, but it mellowed as the two-hour show progressed, and the melodies did their work no matter what. They seemed more like primordial emanations than one person's composition.

In fact, Mr. Lightfoot developed his style by listening to Bob Dylan, whom he honored with a cover of "Ring Them Bells," Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton and the folk songs popularized by anthologies like the Folkways series in the 1960's. Country music was also a major influence, and it resurfaced on
Monday in the tasty licks of the guitarist Terry Clements.

Few of Mr. Lightfoot's folk-rock peers could fall back so easily on the masculine stereotype he embodied. This Canadian outdoorsman, who has spent much of his nonmusical life working for environmental causes, easily taps into the lineage of the singing cowboy. His most flowery songs, "Minstrel of The Dawn" and "Don Quixote," are saved from utter corniness by his reserve as a musician and a personality. He introduced the latter Wednesday as "about the world in general, I guess." Such understatement is his gift.

His band was equally modest. Aside from the occasional soft-rock crescendo from the keyboardist Mike Heffernan, the four-piece group let the songs emerge like crops growing on the prairie. Even "Canadian Railroad Trilogy," originally composed for a television special and performed with a
full orchestra, chorus and dancers, shrunk to manageable size when Mr. Lightfoot performed it. He made grandiosity genial.

By ANN POWERS  New York Times - August 10, 2000