CAMBRIDGE - Gordon Lightfoot has written some of the most enduring and iconic songs in the folk-rock canon. "Sundown," "If You Could Read My Mind," "Carefree Highway" - songs that take their time to tell stories you don't soon forget, with melodies that inexplicably sound as evergreen today as when they ruled the charts in the 1970s.
Maybe that's why it was so jarring and vastly disappointing to hear him blaze through 15 songs in just 50 minutes at Sanders Theatre Friday night. Granted, he was warming up - "We have a head of steam up here now," he said, six songs in - and after a 20-minute intermission, he stretched out a little on a second set of 11 more songs. But the first part of the show, so rushed and drab, nearly sabotaged the whole evening.
Of course, it's a wonder we're hearing Gordon Lightfoot live in 2008. Six years ago, he suffered an abdominal aneurysm that left him in a coma. When he came out of it, he got back to performing and recorded a respectable album, "Harmony," in 2004.
He's an absolute legend, and his fans graciously afforded him that status with their shouted declarations of devotion, including a woman who called out a request for a song, "but I don't know the title," she said to audience laughter.
But you have to separate the legend from the performance, and Friday night simply wasn't one of his better ones. Lightfoot turns 70 in November, and he's understandably not working at the top of his game. His voice is now thin and cracked if still passionate, but the bigger problem is that he's still singing the songs in their original keys. Obviously he's going to miss notes that he can't feasibly hit anymore.
His backing musicians - including a guitarist, bassist, keyboard player, and a drummer who nearly subsumed Lightfoot at times - were so muted and low in the mix that when they took solos, it just sounded like the other parts had dropped out.
The fan favorites - "Beautiful," "Rainy Day People," "Don Quixote" - came and went with not even a moment's pause to savor them; the applause had hardly died down before Lightfoot launched into the next song. His banter with the crowd was minimal, though Lightfoot did acknowledge Cambridge's indelible folk past. He remembered playing at Club 47 (now Club Passim) and meeting some of the scene's stars: Mimi and Dick Fariña, Jim Kweskin, and Maria and Geoff Muldaur.
And there were glimmers of the good old days. Lightfoot toggled between his six- and 12-string guitars, as nimble and fluid as he ever was. A faithful rendition of "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" reminded you of his conviction to memorable storytelling. "Alberta Bound" was a welcome slice of rowdy country-rock, and on a cover of Bob Dylan's "Ring Them Bells," Lightfoot found a nuanced rhythm for the shopworn classic.
"Let's do a toe-tapper to get us out of here," Lightfoot said to his band before a spirited take on "Blackberry Wine." It was the first and only encore, and with it the show really started - and stopped.
James Reed can be reached at email@example.com.