Gordon Lightfoot strolled onstage Saturday much as he has thousands of times in his four-decade career. The ovation he got from the capacity crowd at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, however, was unusually emotional, given that he hadn't yet played a note.
On the second night of his first tour in 2 1/2 years, fans from as far as Alaska and Michigan appeared grateful that the Canadian singer-songwriter was breathing, let alone on the road again after an abdominal aneurysm in 2002 left him in a coma for five weeks and confined to a hospital bed for three months.
Without a word, just a wink and a modest smile, the 66-year-old musician opened with "Spanish Moss," moved quickly into "Don Quixote" and then "The Minstrel of the Dawn." They were songs from his artistic heyday in the 1970s, when he was among the most accomplished, if under-appreciated, members of the singer-songwriter cavalcade.
Though just a few years older than Neil Young and Joni Mitchell -- fellow Canadians who also launched their careers in the '60s and fully blossomed in the '70s -- Lightfoot always seemed more the elder statesman. That's less because of his age than an artistic sensibility that mines the permanence of the land beneath him and the history behind him.
In fact, if there's one word missing from his considerable vocabulary, it's "reinvent." His latest album, "Harmony," released last year, is one of the strongest since his cachet began to fade in the late '70s. It is musically and lyrically in keeping with his '60s and '70s work.
He played only the title tune, a characteristically lilting waltz that wrestles with the thought of losing his muse. His voice retains the beauty and color of his prime, but still lacks much of the power and vibrancy -- one toll of his affair with alcohol.
Backstage after his two-hour performance, Lightfoot said that on waking from the coma, the thought that he might not perform again never crossed his mind.
"I always knew the day would come," he said. "It was just a matter of preparing for when it arrived."
While in the hospital, he oversaw completion of the "Harmony" album, for which he had previously recorded guitar and vocal tracks.
"I was working on the album, so I never really thought about being in the hospital," said Lightfoot, whose manager noted that he'll play three dozen dates this year as he eases back into touring.
Still, the man with hundreds of songs to his credit, including "Early Morning Rain," "For Lovin' Me," "If You Could Read My Mind" and "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," hasn't resumed writing since his hospital stay.
"The need hasn't been there yet," he said, with only a hint of trepidation. "We'll just have to see whether that comes back."