NAC, Ottawa - November 10, 2006

Singer Gordon Lightfoot's gaunt appearance had many in Friday's NAC crowd gasping in surprise. But...

Singer Gordon Lightfoot's gaunt appearance had many in Friday's NAC crowd gasping in surprise. But the Canadian icon, who suffered a minor stroke just five weeks ago, survived the show and thrilled his fans. (Sun file photo)

-- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 1:35 AM ET

OTTAWA - The audience gasped audibly when Gordon Lightfoot walked onto the National Arts Centre stage Friday night for the first of two sold-out shows.

Most, I'm guessing, reacted at the thrill of seeing this Canadian icon.

But for many, including myself, there was a momentary shock at seeing just how dissipated and skeletal the 68-year-old Canadian icon has become.

Of course, after all Lightfoot's been through -- a near-lethal abdominal aneurysm in 2002 and a minor stroke only five weeks ago -- it's nothing short of a miracle that he's still with us at all.

It added a whole new level to Lightfoot's already dramatic storytelling song. Would he even survive the gig?

Not only did he survive but, at times, he soared, singing as passionately as he had 30 years ago.

Granted, it didn't look that way at first. Dressed in a black plaid shirt and jeans, with his long hair and cheekbones glaring, Lightfoot opened his NAC gig tentatively, opting for lightweight confections beginning with Triangle, Cotton Jenny, 14 Karat Gold, Never Too Close and Painter Passing Through. It was an underwhelming start that didn't improve until he dipped deeper into the vault for Lightfoot odes to wandering and loving including Rainy Day People, Beautiful, Carefree Highway, Ribbon of Darkness and Sundown before closing the first half with Watchman.

Accompanied by his low-key band of superb musicians -- Terry Clements on guitar, Mike Hefferman on keyboards, Rick Haynes on bass and Barry Keane on drums -- Lightfoot struggled throughout the set with what's left of his shredded, nasal voice.

At times, it appeared he was just taking this performance one song at a time. Add to that a tepid set list and Lightfoot's rather distant stage persona and you had a concert that left the audience out in the cold.

Miraculously, Lightfoot hit his stride, singing passionately in a way that reminded us of his former glory after the intermission with The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald which coincidentally, he noted, sank 31 years ago to the day on Nov. 10, as well as Alberta Bound, All the Lovely Ladies,In My Fashion and a remarkably moving performance of If You Could Read My Mind.

By this time, even Lightfoot seemed surprised at how rejuvenated he was feeling.

"I feel good tonight. I like a challenge. We'll give it a shot." he said affectionately of his beloved Centennial contribution Canadian Railroad Trilogy before closing with Sit Down Young Stranger, Early Morning Rain, which, Lightfoot noted was improved by Elvis Presley when the King changed a word in the lyric "cold and drunk as I can be" to "might" be, and his encore Old Dan's Records that lightened much of Lightfoot's vulnerability and in the end, showed Lightfoot to be the survivor he is. And just how frail we all can be.


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