Barnstable, MA
Barnstable Performing Arts Center - August 2, 2018

Cape Cod Times
Doug Fraser
August 3, 2018

Before becoming known as a performer, Lightfoot was considered a top songwriter, and his songwriting ability was evident Thursday night.

HYANNIS – Toward the end of a two-set performance of his extensive songwriting catalog, Gordon Lightfoot paused to note that his next song was recorded by Elvis.

“He did a great job on it, too,” he said.

Lightfoot launched into “Early Morning Rain,” a 1963 ballad of regret for time and money wasted and a longing for home that transcended boundaries of country, blues, folk and rock. It was recorded by Elvis; Ian and Sylvia; Peter, Paul and Mary; Chad and Jeremy; Judy Collins, the Clancy Brothers, and it has been sung by numerous artists in concert, including rocker Neil Young.

And it was one in a long line of big hits for Lightfoot, who was a chart-topper in the United States and internationally during the 1970s.

But age and illness have taken their toll on Lightfoot, 79. The rich, effortless baritone is now thin and strained, although the love of performing – he’s been on a stage since he was in elementary school – hasn’t diminished.

Lightfoot, born in Canada in 1938 and living in Toronto, told the audience at the Barnstable High School Performing Arts Center Thursday night that he still does around 75 performances a year, in Canada, the United States and Europe. Thursday night’s show was the third concert in a two-week tour with a dozen stops.

Before becoming known as a performer, Lightfoot was considered a top songwriter, and his songwriting ability was evident Thursday night. Much like Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan, whose vocal performances have dimmed with time, it’s the power of the songs that survive.

Lightfoot’s songs were always filled with catchy melodic hooks, and his band – nearly all have been with him since the ’70s – was adept at weaving their various parts together into a nicely layered piece. Even though the voice was no longer there to power “The Watchman’s Gone,” a catchy elegy to a hobo lifestyle tinged with the threat of the train guard, the band did a fine job with the melody, the nice lyrical refrains Lightfoot builds into every song. The band may be a step slower than it was in its heyday, but it can still play, and guitarist Carter Lancaster – who replaced longtime lead guitar player Terry Clements after Clements’ death in 2011 – carried the day with nicely done leads and picking, as well as understated accompaniment that augmented Lightfoot’s own guitar work.

At times, Lightfoot’s voice showed flashes of what once was – he did well on “Christian Island (Georgian Bay)”, and he was particularly strong on the traditional ballads. His rendition of his classic “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” an unlikely Top 40 hit in 1976, was actually a bit more tragic, like late-career Johnny Cash, for the experience and imbued in an older, less polished voice.

When he faltered a little on “Sundown,” a massive hit in 1974, the audience picked it up, singing along to the words they knew well from the FM radio of their youth. Sometimes the song just eclipsed the desire for a perfect performance. “Beautiful” is truly a beautiful song about enduring love, and “If You Could Read My Mind” is so nicely constructed, moving through the clichés of romance novels, B-movies with castles and ghosts, undercut by reality. “Heroes often fail,” the song goes, but Lightfoot’s performance at 79, recovering from illnesses that would have ended the career of a less dedicated artist to continue to tour and entertain, was heroic.

The song will outlive the singer, and many of Lightfoot’s songs will survive. But as he showed with his performance of “Early Morning Rain,” there’s nothing like hearing the original doing it well.