Gordon Lightfoot brings familiar voice, swagger to welcoming crowd at the Garde

Singer Gordon Lightfoot performs during the CFL's 100th Grey Cup Championship Halftime Show at the Rogers Centre on Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012, in Toronto. (Photo by Arthur Mola/Invision/AP)
Singer Gordon Lightfoot performs during the CFL's 100th Grey Cup Championship Halftime Show at the Rogers Centre on Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012, in Toronto. (Photo by Arthur Mola/Invision/AP)

Just before Gordon Lightfoot launched into his improbable American hit about a 1975 shipwreck on Lake Superior Saturday night, a woman in the audience held up her cellphone to record a video.

She peered into the screen, where Lightfoot’s band and some mildly psychedelic lighting effects on the Garde Arts Center stage came into focus.

In the middle was Lightfoot, the spotlight and smartphone camera rendering him into a bright, folk singer-shaped glow, too blurry to have visible edges or details, but still, undeniably, there.

Lightfoot came to his first show in New London in nearly two decades equipped with jokes about his age — 78 — playful digs at his longtime band, cheeky punchlines about the time he almost met Elvis, and a gentle swagger that kept a mostly loving crowd happy for just over two hours Saturday night.

And he brought his voice, thinner than it once was and heavily bolstered by his fantastic band, but still capable of lilting clarity.

A mid-show spritz of anti-allergy spray in the throat served both as one of those old-age jokes and a boost to his “mojo,” which he announced he had reclaimed a couple songs before an intermission.

Lightfoot, long-haired and vest-clad, mostly avoided more misanthropic tunes like "For Lovin’ Me" in favor of lesser-known, gentler songs from his decades-long career and 20 albums. He started with a timid rendition of "Now and Then," met with enthusiastic applause and one loud “we love you, Gordy.”

The outburst turned Lightfoot’s steely thousand-yard stare into a surprised grin, and a comeback.

“We love you back,” he said. “We couldn’t do it without you.”

Lightfoot’s crowd stayed with him the whole night, through the wavers in his voice and the four or five hearty “all rights” he relied on to remind the crowd he was having a good time.

Staples like "Sundown" and "Minstrel of the Dawn" were popular, as was his understated version of the hit "If You Could Read My Mind," which generated the middle-aged-man version of a teenager girl’s reaction to Harry Styles from several in the crowd.

Lightfoot seemed encouraged when the crowd sang along, and even gleeful when he trusted them to finish the last verse of "Ribbon of Darkness" and one deep-voiced audience member took the challenge with a perfectly timed solo to finish out the song's last lyrics.

“Leave your name with the receptionist,” Lightfoot quipped into the darkness.

His band had a good time too — Carter Lancaster on the guitar, Rick Haynes on bass, Barry Keane on drums and Mike Heffernan on keyboards — all charmingly introduced by Lightfoot, who read their names off a small card that he put back into a wallet in his back pocket.

All four have been playing with Lightfoot for decades, sticking with him during the energetic touring schedule that has followed the end of his recording career, and the collective experience showed Saturday night. 

When he hit his lines on solid footing, Lightfoot sounded satisfyingly like himself, particularly after intermission on the melancholy "Drink Yer Glasses Empty” and on a flirtatious, foot-stomping version of "Baby Step Back."

By the time he got to an encore performance of "Cold on the Shoulder," the details had come into focus, and his New London welcomed him with open arms.

m.shanahan@theday.com

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