Costa Mesa, CA
Orange County Performing Arts Center - June 20, 1997


"Timeless songs and a still-expressive voice instill life into the Canadian folk singer's generously lengthy concert." 

It has been nearly two decades since a bout with alcoholism and changing fashions in pop music swept singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot from the spotlight.  Lightfoot had been a fixture on the '70s charts, with crowd pleasers such as "If You Could Read My Mind," "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," "Sundown," "Beautiful" and "Carefree Highway." 

But the Canadian proto-folkie's 2-hour, 20-minute retrospective concert Friday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center proved that enough life remains in his voice and in many of his songs to ensure that his show was more than a musty museum visit. 

Still, it was a trip down memory lane.  Alternating between 6- and 12-string guitars and backed by his able, unobtrusive (though sometimes to a fault) four-piece band, and randomly dispensing his amiable, quirky sense of humor, Lightfoot dug deep into his well of old faves, as well as more obscure material. 

Lightfoot's voice has lost a trace of suppleness over the years.  But it remains vital, distinctive and expressive, capable of significantly enhancing the resonance of his best songs.  The gentle vibrato style still conveys masculine strength and vulnerability. 

Unlike the dynamic Richard Thompson, another folk-rooted legend who was in town last week, Lightfoot doesn't stray far from the recorded versions of his songs.  Lead guitaritst Rick Haynes' note-for-note solo on "Sundown" was a case in point. 

While such lack of adventurousness endowed several of the songs with a wearying sameness, Lightfoot's singing usually was soulful enough that great experiments with melody weren't needed.  On the waltz-time "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," a great nautical ballad about the last day of a ship and crew doomed by an unexpected autumn storm on Lake Superior, Lightfoot visually and vocally appeared genuinely moved by the power of this tragic story of human dignity in the face of malevolent nature. 

On "Canadian Railroad Trilogy," an epic song written to celebrate Canada's 1967 Centennial, Lightfoot's voice took on a particularly burnished quality, deepening the experience of this long look back at his country's history. 

Like Thompson and other artists of a certain integrity, Lightfoot spares the audience any sense that he's trying to sell something.  Were that not true, Lightfoot might well have positioned his wistfully beautiful 1970 signature ballad, "If You Could Read My Mind," right at the end.  Instead, he put it right in the middle of the second half of the show, opting to close with songs such as "Canadian Railroad Trilogy" and "Early Morning Rain." 

Although Lightfoot's commercial heyday is behind him, folk rock's recent resurgence in a pop scene floundering to find direction perhaps adds hospitality to his concerts.  But, showing he is not in creative mothballs, he unveiled a heartfelt, mature new song in which he seems to accept the limits of his wisdom and the inevitable march of time. 

by Jeff Rubio - The Orange County Register