When an artist's latest release is promoted as "comeback" album, it's usually a last-ditch effort to resuscitate a moribund career.
In the case of Gordon Lightfoot, who appears Thursday night at the Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim, it's more a case of truth in advertising. The April release of "Waiting for You" is the Canadian troubadour's first album of new material since 1986.
"I guess I had a dry spell there," deadpanned Lightfoot in a recent phone interview. "Maybe I wasn't into it enough--I didn't feel compelled to do an album. But after a while, I put my nose to the grindstone. It took about 2 1/2 years to come up with 10 real good songs, and then we had to record them, so here we are--more than six years later."
Lightfoot, who had started performing in the 1950s, had doubtless earned the vacation. Judging from the fruit that followed his protracted respite, all that down-time recharged his creative battery.
"Waiting for You" is among the most honest and personal efforts in his catalogue, a heartfelt, minimalist return to the singer-songwriter's folk and country roots that recalls his early, more traditional work.
"It's all really live tunes, with no vocals redone," he said. "Perhaps I was unconsciously trying to get back to how I used to do it. I didn't deliberately go back to that, although that \o7 is\f7 what I do best. This time, I just decided to record it a little more naturally, spend less time doing it."
Lightfoot, 54, came out of the early-'60s folk boom that also spawned Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs and other influential performers.
Never as overtly political (or celebrated among '60s counterculture) as those guitar-toting peers, Lightfoot had a melodic instinct and a knack for storytelling that got his songs covered by the likes of Marty Robbins, Ian & Sylvia, Peter, Paul & Mary and others early in his career.
"In those days, you had the Kingston Trio on the one side, and Pete Seeger and the Weavers on the other, all to be very swiftly followed by Dylan," Lightfoot said.
"My music was kind of patterned after all of them, with the use of the capo (a clamp that lets guitarists easily play in any key) and all that. . . . It's funny, isn't it? I think about the music more than the words. I'm a tinkerer--the words just sort of happen. Maybe that's good. If I thought about the words too much, maybe I'd go off the deep end with them."
After recording eight albums, Lightfoot hit his commercial stride in 1974 with the release of "Sundown." The album and its title single both charted No. 1 and sold more than a million units.
Lightfoot's most enduring song may well be 1976's "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," a haunting, evocative account of a contemporary marine disaster in which all 29 crew members of an ore vessel were drowned in Lake Superior.
Lightfoot said that to this day he gets mail from relatives of the deceased, expressing that his song is a great source of comfort to them, and that he is frequently invited to perform at memorial concerts for the Edmund Fitzgerald's casualties.
"I've always been fascinated with the sea, ever since I was a kid," he said. "It was like I was \o7 compelled \f7 to write that song, and it became one of the biggest hits I ever had." It peaked at No. 2 in Billboard. " 'Sundown' was bigger, but I suppose 'The Wreck' will be remembered longer."
By 1982, Top 10 hits stopped coming for Lightfoot, although he retains a loyal following off the strength of his many years on the road and his dozen-plus albums.
Lightfoot, in fact, never stopped performing live, even during his absence from the studio. If he sometimes misses the days when his albums sold in the millions, that's never deterred him from hitting the road, where he seems to feel most at home.
"I've gotten discouraged from time to time, I wouldn't be human if I didn't," he said. "But we keep going. We've always got enough money coming back in to foot a tour. If my health holds up, I'd still like to be touring in the year 2000."
\o7 * Gordon Lightfoot appears Thursday at 8 p.m. at the Celebrity Theatre, 201 E. Broadway, Anaheim. $28. (714) 535-2000. \f7