It had been years since he last performed at the venue, and decades since he scored his last real hit. So, he figured that an introduction might be in order.

"I'm Gordon Lightfoot," the singer-songwriter-guitarist told the crowd on Sunday at The Mountain Winery in Saratoga. "And the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated."

It was Lightfoot's stab at making a joke. But fans certainly hadn't forgotten about the former AM radio king, even though it had been nearly a dozen years since he last played The Mountain Winery. Yet, the 74-year-old Canadian definitely still remembers the erroneous reports of his death posted a few years back by a journalist on Twitter and Facebook. It seemed only fitting that he further clear up the issue in the very backyard of those social media giants.

Still, it's really saying something when it takes a death hoax to get someone back in the headlines. There hasn't even been much commotion made about his milestone anniversary, which he's currently celebrating with his 50 Years on the Carefree Highway Tour.

Lightfoot, of course, remains a major star in his native Canada. But it's been a long time since the folk-pop artist qualified as a celebrity in the states. His last Top 40 album in U.S. was 1978's "Endless Wire."

That's a shame, since Lightfoot showed beyond a shadow of a doubt at The Mountain Winery that his songbook is among the best in the business. Lightfoot and his four-piece backing band performed some 30 songs during their two-set show, including such decades-old smashes as "If You Could Read My Mind" and "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" as well as newer material. Nearly everything played was memorable.


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Lightfoot's credentials are impeccable. Other artists are well-aware of this, having long championed Lightfoot's place among the greatest songwriters in history. The list of celebrated musicians who have covered Lightfoot songs includes Elvis Presley, Alison Krauss, Johnny Mathis, Eric Clapton, Waylon Jennings and Nanci Griffith.

Fortunately, there seems to be a small revival of interest in his music. Johnny Cash helped spread the word with his great version of "If You Could Read My Mind" on one of his last albums. Some decidedly hip acts, from The Dandy Warhols to The Replacements, have turned on new fans by covering Lightfoot tunes. And no less of an authority than Bob Dylan publicly proclaimed Lightfoot as one of his favorite songwriters.

What Lightfoot does as well as anyone is paint a picture in song. Lightfoot was particularly successful on Sunday with his period pieces, managing to make the people, places and things that populate such songs as "Canadian Railroad Trilogy" and "Edmund Fitzgerald" resonate in ways that could never come from reading history books.

Lightfoot has had his share of health problems. He sounded quite weak at the start of the show, with his reedy voice barely resembling the lush baritone found on 1975's hugely popular greatest hits collection "Gord's Gold." There was a two or three song adjustment period, where fans had to get used to what Lightfoot sounds like in 2013. Plus, the vocals did improve as the night progressed. (At age 74, Lightfoot apparently needs a little extra time to warm up.)

Fortunately, these fans weren't about to let Lightfoot sing alone. They crooned along with gusto to such longtime favorites as "Carefree Highway," "Early Morning Rain," "Ribbon of Darkness," "Sundown" and "Cotton Jenny."

Some folks will probably always be reluctant to give Lightfoot his just due, and place him among the best songwriters of the last 50 years. Yet, those folks certainly weren't in attendance at The Mountain Winery on Sunday night.

Follow Jim Harrington at http://twitter.com/jimthecritic, www.facebook.com/jim.bayareanews and http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/category/concerts.