If you know Gordon Lightfoot just from ubiquitous radio hits like "Carefree Highway" or "Sundown," you've only scratched the surface of his talent.
In front of a near-capacity crowd at the Pabst Theater Sunday night, the 58-year-old Canadian troubadour offered a two-hour, 27-song show filled with vivid imagery set to folk melodies.
The tall, slim Lightfoot rarely moved from center stage as he strummed one of the three guitars he kept nearby. The warm baritone of his earlier days remains generally intact, even if he did avoid the high notes in songs like "Rainy Day People." An unassuming four-piece band backed the singer unobtrusively, leaving the focus on the words.
Lightfoot has the heart of a poet, and hearing the hits in the context of his other material brought out the beauty of the lyrics. "Don Quixote" was a three-minute short story of the search for meaning in life, and even a chestnut like "If You Could Read My Mind" revealed new layers of meaning among the songwriter's other gems.
During the evening, Lightfoot returned often to the musical form known as the sea chantey -- melodic, hummable tales of the sailor's life. "Christian Island (Georgian Bay)" and "Ghosts of Cape Horn" fit this category, while "The Watchman's Gone" and "Canadian Railroad Trilogy" took the same imagery from sea to land.
Of course, Lightfoot's most famous sea chantey is "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," which garnered the loudest applause from the crowd. With the story's real-life connection to Wisconsin -- the boat's last voyage began in Superior -- he couldn't leave town without performing that one.
Lightfoot's also been writing songs for a new album, and the ones he introduced Sunday night reflected a more playful attitude. "Boathouse" and "Ringneck Loon" were pleasant but inconsequential compared to the rest of the night's material.
For an encore, Lightfoot closed with the tender love ballad "Beautiful." It served as a last reminder of his underrated lyrical skills.
If you're not a fan, a little Gordon Lightfoot admittedly goes a long way. But there were many die-hard enthusiasts in the crowd, who applauded wildly at the first few chords of even the more obscure tunes.
by Frank Federico - Special to the Journal Sentinel