Editor’s note: This article was originally published February 12, 2014
"We really love the work, and that’s why we do this," Gordon Lightfoot told the crowd at ACL Live on Tuesday night near the end of a two-hour show that stretched across the Canadian songwriter’s half-century career. At age 75, Lightfoot is less light of foot and more fragile of voice than in his radio-hits heyday, but it’s still quite clear that he loves the work.
Long after he’s gone, his songs will still stand strong. For now, though, there are still opportunities to hear them sung by their creator, and that chance drew a couple thousand fans downtown on a cold and windy night. Across two sets parted by a 20-minute break, Lightfoot delivered 26 songs – some universally recognized, many mildly familiar, a few unknown to most in the crowd.
There were, inevitably, key moments everyone was waiting for. The bluesy "Sundown" came near the end of the first set; the epic "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" somewhat surprisingly was served up as the second song of the next set, rather than being held back for the finale.
Near the end of the show came "If You Could Read My Mind," ultimately still Lightfoot’s most affecting number. Much as the song reached into another dimension when Johnny Cash sang it with a frail, fading voice near the end of his life a decade ago, so too does its pathos connect more deeply when Lightfoot revisits it now. The ending really IS just too hard to take.
With classic older artists such as this, sometimes audiences simply anticipate the "hits," the songs they remember from the radio days of their youth. It’s another matter with Lightfoot, though: His greatest works have become standards, enduring folk songs, almost monuments of North American culture. It’s tougher for him to deliver them now, and the sonic results may be diminished; his four-piece backing band was a model of restraint, taking pains to support the songs gracefully without overwhelming Lightfoot’s vocals. Still, it’s doubtful that anyone in attendance regretted being there.
It’s worth noting, too, that Lightfoot’s catalog reaches well beyond the chart-topping points. It was telling that four more songs came after "If You Could Read My Mind," all of them carefully chosen because he was well aware they could carry the weight of such placement. The set-finale "Early Morning Rain" – written 50 years ago and recorded by everyone from Elvis to Dylan to Jerry Lee Lewis – was perhaps an easy call. But "Restless" was a brilliant choice to directly follow "If You Could Read My Mind"; from the underrated 1993 album "Waiting for You," it’s a three-minute zen moment, one in which Lightfoot assures that "We will be returning to the things that we love best." That’s why he does this, indeed.