A visitor to this city might have guessed that the long line forming south on Yonge from Shuter last night had something to do with the eager anticipation for the opening of the final instalment of the Star Wars saga.

Well, the "star" part of that equation was right.

Gordon Lightfoot, the 66-year-old Canadian folksinging great who has returned to performance after a prolonged illness, was back where he belonged, playing the first of four sold-out nights at Massey Hall.

"The centre of my universe as a musician really is here," Lightfoot told a rapturous house that included Adrienne Clarkson.

The Governor General, who the previous day had welcomed the Queen to Saskatchewan, must have felt that she was once again in the presence of royalty. Canadian royalty.

Taking the stage to a standing ovation, Lightfoot apologized for being late, even though his arrival 10 minutes after the show's scheduled start had to count as the most punctual concert appearance this side of Bob Dylan.

Lightfoot's Massey Hall residencies — the first of which took place in 1967 — are the stuff of local legend. And the sense of occasion was palpable, if slightly tinged with nervous tension. The singer, backed by four accompanists, rendered any lingering fears to rest with an unstinting two-hour performance, broken by a 20-minute intermission, that ran to nearly 30 songs.

True, the voice is not as strong as it was. Returning for the first of two encores, Lightfoot even joked about whether he had the wind to get through his poetic evocation of the national dream, "Canadian Railroad Trilogy." The audience was poised to help him along, but it wasn't necessary.

Much of the preceding set was bathed in a warm, intimate glow. From opener "Spanish Moss" on, the approach was understated and low-key, the kind of performance you might give for friends and family in the kitchen — if, that is, your kitchen featured stained-glass windows and a very high ceiling.

Fans responded most enthusiastically to favourites such as "Cotton Jenny," "If You Could Read My Mind," "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," "Beautiful" and "Sundown," but also welcomed the inclusion of selections from last year's Harmony. "Couchiching," a song from that album filled with references to Lightfoot's hometown of Orillia, was prefaced by an anecdote about his 19-month hospitalization after suffering an abdominal aneurysm in 2002.

"I got to play it just once," he said, recalling when he last performed the song live. "And the next day I wasn't going anywhere."

And now, miraculously, he has returned triumphant.


By JAMES ADAMS - Globe & Mail
Thursday, May 19, 2005

A famous critic once described jazz as "the sound of surprise." There wasn't much jazz at Massey Hall last night (the chord changes in Beautiful notwithstanding) or much surprise. But there was much pleasure and not a little pathos as Gordon Lightfoot once again trod upon the hall's fabled boards as he has so famously done, off and on, for the last 38 years.

Mr. Lightfoot, in fact, hasn't graced the grand old lady of Shuter Street since May of 2001. He was last scheduled to play a series of dates there in the fall of 2002, but then an abdominal aneurysm that September put him seriously out of commission. For the next 19 months and 22 days, fans wondered if Canada's most famous troubadour would survive the three operations he eventually had, and if he did survive, would he be able to perform again.

The answer came in the form of 27 songs expertly played over more than two hours before an adoring crowd of about 2,700. At 66, Gord is back -- a little short of wind, his baritone thin on the top end, his body almost spookily thin, and the face carved into stark planes, but back nevertheless.

Indeed, it took a while last night for one to sense that -- 14 songs and one intermission, to be precise -- but once Mr. Lightfoot and his veteran four-piece band appeared for the second set, all seemed right between performer and audience.

Of course, there was nothing radical about last night's concert. A Lightfoot performance is nothing if not a celebration of the pleasures of the predictable as Mr. Lightfoot and band -- bassist Rick Haynes (who's been with him for 36 years), guitarist Terry Clements (35 years), drummer Barry Keane (29 years) and keyboardist Mike Heffernan (at Mr. Lightfoot's right hand for 18 years) -- serve up one familiar song after another, interspersed with material that at first seems lesser-known songs then familiar all the same.

Unsurprisingly, the mostly older audience (at intermission, I stood in line, a long, long line, to the men's washroom with a Lightfoot acquaintance from New York who remarked that he should have worn Depends) was on Mr. Lightfoot's side right from the moment he joined his bandmates on stage around 8:10 p.m. "Sorry I'm late," he joked as the crowd, which included Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson and John Ralston Saul, responded with a standing ovation of whoops, whistles and handclaps that lasted more than two minutes.

The first set, a mixture of gems (Cotton Jenny, Minstrel of the Dawn, Sundown) and clunkers (including a relatively new song, Couchiching, from last year's Harmony CD that is better left forgotten or else sold as a jingle for the Orillia Chamber of Commerce), seemed rather strained and tentative as all concerned tried to find their bearings and adjust their expectations.

But a sense of both relaxation and purposefulness eventually settled on both Mr. Lightfoot and his associates, something especially evident in their assaying of classics such as If You Could Read My Mind, A Painter Passing Through, Ghost of Cape Horn, Baby Step Back and Beautiful.

Here lines such as, "And after all is said and done/is there no rainbow's end," and, "To be just once again/With you," carried an added poignancy and greater intimations of mortality as a result of Mr. Lightfoot's tribulations of recent years.

Of course, the big question on most of the audience's mind was, would he do Canadian Railroad Trilogy, perhaps his most epic and most challenging (at least in terms of duration) song? Well, he did, as the first of what were two encores (the last was another chestnut, Bitter Green). It was pretty good, if strained in the later going. In fact, the drama here was found less in the grandiose lyrics and more in the audience's prayers that the singer would get through the composition more or less intact.

Which he did. Because Mr. Lightfoot clearly felt the love last night. There's nothing, it seems, like a near-death experience to deepen one's appreciation of old friendships, sturdy craftsmanship and the grace of sheer perseverance.