In the old days, a Gordon Lightfoot performance depended entirely on the strength of his material. He wasn't very interested in putting on a show, but he got away with it because his songs were so good.
But now Lightfoot's in show biz, which two full houses in the the Duluth Auditorium on Saturday night could attest to. He's not ready to fill in during Wayne Newton's vacations from Vegas, but the man who never used to smile on stage was positively full of good humor on Saturday night.
Musically, his show is stronger than ever. He plays all the hits you came to hear, and paces them with skillful selections from his past albums. The show never deteriorates into a greatest-hits package, although no one would be upset if he included a medley of his older folk songs.
Along with note-perfect renditions of "Edmund Fitzgerald," "Sundown," "Circle is Small" and "Don Quixote," Lightfoot included several novelty numbers such as Leroy Van Dyke's "The Auctioneer," on which lead guitarist Terry Clements had the crowd in rythmic clapping during his bluegrass solo.
Another novelty song was a funny number about two gold prospectors in the Yukon called "Partners." As soon as Lightfoot had milked the last laugh from that one, he and the band eased into "If You Could Read My Mind" for a very effective change of pace.
His showmanship got almost silly at times. He put guitar picks in his eyes, stopped a couple of songs for "dramatic" pauses, and introduced the band - to each other. Somehow, it never deteriorated into John Denver sappiness, because Lightfoot has never been a purveyor of continuous good cheer. When he's happy, you assume he has something to be happy about.
He seems to genuinely enjoy playing in Duluth now. At one point in the show he thanked Gilbert and Nancy Reed of the Duluth Ballet for their dance interpretation of "Edmund Fitzgerald." The audience was always warm and at times idolatrous of the Canadian singer.
There were several highlights. One was a song written for his children who live with his ex-wife in Europe, and another moving moment was the lovely "Beautiful." "Summertime Dream" remains one of the best melodies and snappiest songs of his long career. Lightfoot has moved from being a respected folk singer to an occassional top 40 artist to the "Today's Special" rack at Musicland. His stage act is extremely loose between numbers, and almost inhumanly tight during numbers. He's always been good, but he's also living proof that a performer can always get better.
As he closed with his classic "Early Morning Rain," it occurred to me that the only complaint you could have with Gordon Lightfoot is that he didn't play "Canadian Railroad Trilogy" or "For Lovin' Me" or "Softly" or "Saturday Clothes" or any of his other favorites. But that's very easy criticism for an artist to take.