Singer Gordon Lightfoot arched his left eyebrow over his faraway blue eyes as he listened to Carter Lancaster play the elegantly wiry guitar passage that essentially serves as the chorus to "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald."
If you could read Lightfoot's mind at that moment Monday night at the State Theatre in Minneapolis, you might have wondered: What was he thinking? About Captain McSorley on Lake Superior? His first Twin Cities appearance in Minneapolis in 1969? His buddy from Minnesota, Bob Dylan?
Lightfoot mentioned all of those things between songs on Monday. He was chatty, hyping his opening act, Twin Cities singer-songwriter Chris Koza, who had been on the previous six Midwest gigs. Lightfoot gave a shout-out to retired Twin Cities promoter Fred Krohn, who had booked nearly 100 Lightfoot concerts over the years. The Canadian bard touted what he called the three great entities of the 20th century — Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Dylan.
He shared the story of going backstage in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1972 to meet Elvis, who had just recorded Lightfoot's "Early Morning Rain." The rising singer-songwriter was excited even though Elvis had changed a chord. He was greeted backstage by the superstar's manager, Col. Tom Parker, who said, "I'm sorry Mr. Lightfoot, Elvis has left the building."
That's the same Elvis who will be the subject of a new movie, the veteran troubadour — "he called me Mr. Lightfoot" — pointed out.
As for Minnesota's most famous minstrel, he joked: "Dylan got his chips here [Minnesota] and he went to New York and that's where all his trouble began."
All of this is to say that 83-year-old Lightfoot's mind is sharp. That's what a sellout crowd of 2,200 witnessed. Or as the theater marquee put it: Gordon Lightfoot, the Legend.
What they didn't experience was Gordon Lightfoot, the Golden Voice. His rich-as-molasses baritone has thinned considerably, and his enunciation wasn't always clear. In 2002, he suffered an abdominal aortic aneurysm that affected his vocal cords. His wind — and thus his control over volume — is limited.
That Lightfoot is performing at all might be against the odds. In 2006, a stroke left him unable to play guitar for a time. In 2019, he underwent leg surgery after injuring himself in his home gym. Then last year, he broke his wrist.
Somehow, the Toronto singer-songwriter pressed on, even releasing "Solo," his first studio album in 14 years, in 2020.
Backed by his veteran quartet on Monday, the gaunt guitarist didn't offer anything from "Solo," instead focusing on material from the 1960s and his 1970s heyday. Hits like "Sundown," "If You Could Read My Mind" and "Edmund Fitzgerald" were big crowd-pleasers. But the highlight might have been "Song for a Winter's Night," wrapped in red-and-green lights with a hint of snow on back screens. It was a showstopper and rapturous even on a 101-degree night.
Lancaster's expressive guitar, whether jazzy, bluesy or twangy, often provided the emotion that Lightfoot's voice couldn't muster during the brief 70-minute performance. But the songs — and the Legend — were in evidence at least one more time.