Gordon Lightfoot ended up putting on two very different shows Saturday night at the Palace Theatre.
Where the Canadian folkie’s first set stuck to a seemingly rigid set, with little audience interaction (and little variation in sound between songs), the second set showcased a much looser Lightfoot. He quipped back and forth with the decent-sized audience and reserved his most popular numbers for the second half of the show.
Even the rest of the band felt newly energized by the change in demeanor. This isn’t to say the first set didn’t have its moments — it had plenty of them, actually — but what a difference a little spontaneity makes.
Lightfoot and his longtime band hit the stage promptly at 8 and for the most part didn’t stop until intermission, with only the occasional quip about the key they were playing in. “Did She Mention My Name” set the relaxed tone for the evening, as the band settled into an overly comfortable groove.
But given Lightfoot’s age and brushes with illness in the past, it was a wonder his vocals and guitar playing sounded little different than it did in his heyday in the ’60s and ’70s. Songs such as “Carefree Highway,” the somber “Never Too Close” and a lilting run on “A Painter Passing Thru” were met with welcome applause from the crowd as Lightfoot half sung, half whispered each line in his familiar croak.
Given the propensity for ever-increasing volume at live shows, even from Lightfoot’s contemporaries, the quiet, subdued nature of this show was striking. At times, the cheers threatened to drown out the band. This isn’t by any means a knock — the sound stayed true to Lightfoot’s past and to his extensive back catalog.
The band is Lightfoot’s best asset — bassist Rick Haynes stood out on the ending of “14 Karat Gold,” and his melodic playing on “Let it Ride” made the song. Mike Heffernan was the band’s secret weapon, adding subtle atmospheric touches to “Shadows.” And Lightfoot and newest addition Carter Lancaster’s guitar interplay helped make the one-two punch of “Ribbon of Darkness” and “Sundown” a highlight of the first set. There were no egos here — when Lancaster took a solo, it was just enough for the song.
The mood change during the second set was immediately apparent from the sprightly “Sweet Guinivere” on. The audience responded in kind to a fine performance of “Early Morning Rain,” a song popularized by Elvis Presley, and the country gait of “Home From the Forest.”
Lightfoot managed to kick things up a notch with “Minstrel of the Dawn” and “You Just Gotta Be” before the band sunk its teeth into the evening’s top moment, “If You Could Read My Mind.” The standing ovation the song received led Lightfoot to question, “What could he possibly follow that up with?” The answer was the bluesy shuffle of “Baby Step Back” and Lightfoot’s famous “Canadian Railroad Trilogy.” On both these numbers, the band hit peak performance, with Lancaster leading the way as the audience roared its approval after each lick.