Back in the saddle again, Gordon Lightfoot opened his week long concert for the sixteenth year in a row at Massey Hall last night. There is hardly a comparable display of fan loyalty in the entire entertainment world. Think of it: there are kids who were carried in their mother's arms when he first played there in 1968, who are old enough to get their driver's licences this year. And probably a few of them will be driving down to see him this week.
With no new album's worth of material to show off, it was a more or less predictable run through of the Lightfoot repertoire, digging into a few areas he hasn't touched in some time (Did She Mention My Name, Race Among The Ruins), but generally offering the usual line-up of rough-hewn emotionally-romantic lyrics and lilting melodies, with the same cluster of musicians (keyboards, guitar, drums, bass and steel guitar) straightforwardly serving up request after request.
If there's a major change, it's that he looks better - slimmer by a good twenty pounds, so that the cheeks have regained their hollows and the waistline has returned. Before the first intermission, he dressed in dark clothes, and when he emerged wearing white in the second half, the audience cheered as he walked out to pick up the dozen requests and roses at the foot of his microphone. After a slow start, the vitality grew as the evening moved along.
When the songs are matched side by side - If You Could Read My Mind next to The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald next to Christian Island - the lyrics spark off a series of remarably consistent images of lonliness, a quasi-religious search for acceptance and a romanticism so extreme it can only be described as unsalvageable.
Here and there, a lyric heard for perhaps the 1500th time, still has impact. From, The Last Time I Saw Her, for example, on which Lightfoot gave his most emotionally satisfying performance of the night, there's that extraordinary line: "And if time could heal the wounds, I would tear the threads away that I might bleed some more." The audience hung on every word and exploded with applause at the end of the song.
No easy or cynical explanation for his continuing popularity suffices. He is certainly not fashionable, but in some senses, he never was. In his awkward and romantic way, Lightfoot speaks for Canadians' secret, awkward and romantic selves in a way few artists are able to speak to any audience. His tunes about women, trees, drinking and sailing are vintage Canadiana.
He's not a national institution for nothing.