Time doesn’t affect people like Gordon Lightfoot.
Despite all the styles and sounds that have come down through the decades since he strolled into the folk scene in the early ‘70s, he still strums and sings in his understated way.
He hears it his way and plays it his way. Lucky for the fans who went to see him at Proctors Wednesday night, they got to hear the 69-year-old perform the melodies just how they remembered them.
Right from the start, during the opener of “Cotton Jenny,” came the female shout of “I love you Gordon,” overpowering his gentle sound. In mid-verse, without missing a beat, Lightfoot responded, “I love you, too.”
Backed by a four-man band that he needed on the more muscular spots, Lightfoot moved through his song catalog of short, under-three-minute tunes sounding just like the 45s, which he knows is what people wanted to hear.
Songs like “Carefree Highway” are immediately familiar from the play they receive throughout our culture — in supermarkets, on phone hold and maybe at your father-in-law’s. Within four notes of every tune the audience yelped before simmering down to a respectful silence.
Though Lightfoot stood the entire show and played his own guitar, he looked his age and his voice lacked the depth of his youth.
Still, he has the vocal discipline of a master and knows how to tell the story of every song without over-singing — he barely opens his throat — something many performers can’t do today.
While the songs can run into each other since they rarely rise or fall but chug along the same country roads at the same country pace, occasional gems shone through, like the brief “14 Karat Gold” and “Beautiful.”
Another shout of “We still love you” prompted Lightfoot to say, “That’s good to hear, I don’t hear that much around the house.”
“It’s toe-tappin time,” he said, launching into “In My Fashion.” The tempo picked up a bit, but the energy didn’t. “Rainy Day People” upped it slightly.
But the audience, mostly folks in their 50s and up, came alive at the first hint of “Sundown,” Lightfoot’s anthem, only 40 minutes into the show. It came through as a darker song than his others.
And then he surprised us by following with “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” his Moby Dick, to close the first set. At this point, it seemed he had nowhere to go.
So for the second set he filled with the less familiar, telling stories between songs, reaching for more intimacy, often playing without the band.
He pulled it off for the most part, leaning heavy on sentimentality and overcooking a few.
He hit his mark on the soft, “Make Way for the Lady,” one of his later tunes. He followed with “If You Could Read My Mind,” the quintessential, literary and sad Lightfoot.
On paper the words don’t hold up, but inside his melody the song has endured for three decades.
Lightfoot has sung his songs countless times over the years, yet Wednesday night he sounded like he was still discovering and exploring each of his tunes.