Gordon Lightfoot has had a lot of hit songs. But he’s able to fit almost all of them into his live shows.
You can see for yourself when the Canadian singer-songwriter comes to Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in Sarasota on Thursday.
“We do all the big songs, and beyond that we rotate songs,” the 79-year-old said in a phone interview from his home near Toronto.
He’s able to pack so many of his best-known songs into the concert because he’s done a little editing.
“It took me years to realize it,” Lightfoot said, “but a lot of my songs work just as well if you take out a verse or two. Better even. You can’t do it with ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ or ‘If You Could Read My Mind,’ but a lot of them fit quite well into sort of a medley format. A lot of my songs are really long.”
Audiences may not even notice that Lightfoot has cut out selected bits of “Sundown” or “Carefree Highway,” but they’ll notice that they’ll hear their favorite songs, and they’ll notice that the concert runs briskly through Lightfoot’s half-century career as a recording artist.
It took me years to realize it, but a lot of my songs work just as well if you take out a verse or two.
“It’s fast-paced show,” he said. “We keep it moving along.”
Unlike a lot of singer-songwriters who came onto the scene in the 1960s, Lightfoot performed songs by other writers. He had a No. 1 hit in Canada with “Me and Bobby McGee” before just about anyone else had recorded it, and he recorded “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” eight years before Roberta Flack.
Other artists had better luck with Lightfoot’s compositions “Early Morning Rain” and “For Lovin’ Me,” from his 1965 debut album, were well-known to folk-music audiences before Lightfoot himself was.
“Peter Paul, and Mary!” Lightfoot said when those songs were mentioned.
There’s still gratitude in his voice at the thought of the folk superstars recording his obscure songs in 1965. “It surprised me. I had had a few albums and they hadn’t done well,” he said.
Once Peter, Paul and Mary and Canadian duo Ian and Sylvia stared recording Lightfoot’s songs, others followed. George Hamilton IV had a big country hit with “Early Morning Rain” in 1966, and Judy Collins, Chad & Jeremy and even Bob Dylan recorded popular versions of the song.
It’s fast-paced show. We keep it moving along.
It wasn’t until 1970 that Lightfoot had his first hit in the United States, when “If You Could Read My Mind” became one of the most popular songs of 1970. Through that decade, he had a string of hit singles (“Beautiful,” “Sundown,” “Carefree Highway,” “Rainy Day People” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” being among the biggest) and albums that were staples in college students’ record collections in the era.
His core audience is obviously older now, and Lightfoot and his four-piece backing band treat their audience with respect.
“We’re very punctual,” he said. “If the show starts at 8, we’re on stage at 8. It’s a two-hour show and we play two full hours. We take a 20-minute break, and we’re back on stage in exactly 20 minutes.”