He walked slowly and stiffly across the stage, like the former rodeo cowboy he is.
Then he started playing guitar, and the legendary Ian Tyson appeared a foot taller and at least a decade younger.
For a guy who will be 81 years old on Thursday, Tyson still clearly held the power to dazzle a full-house audience at the Memorial Centre on Sunday night.
About 700 fans held onto his every lyric at a concert presented by the Central Music Festival Society. They even sang along to some songs written up to half a century ago, when the Alberta foothills were scarred by fewer roads and pump jacks.
It’s that more pristine, windswept Alberta of yore that Tyson is known for pining for in songs like Land of Shining Mountains, which mentions the “big Alberta sky” and the oil rigs that brought change.
The same wistful theme of disappearing wild and lost love continued when he performed Love Without End, The Wolves No Longer Sing, M.C. Horses, Fiddler Must Be Paid and the western standard Leaving Cheyenne.
Tyson, who was ably accompanied on stage by fellow guitarists Gord Maxwell and Lee Warden, had his smoother voice back, following throat surgery a couple of years ago. (“When the Calgary surgeon told me, ‘I think I can fix you,’ ” the affable singer joked, “I wondered what he meant by that. …”)
Remarkably, his new-old voice retains a higher register. If not quite a resonant as it once was, the crowd didn’t seem bothered, giving Tyson resounding applause for favourites such as This is My Sky, about shrieking hawks and romantic disappointment.
The black cowboy-hatted singer heard angry hawks on his Longview ranch just two weeks ago when a freak snowfall brought down some poplar trees containing their nests. “They were pretty pissed — and I don’t blame them,” he said, to some chuckles from the crowd.
His storytelling resumed on ballads Charles Goodnight’s Grave, about a pioneer trail driver from the 1860s, Casey Tibbs about the world champion bronc rider, and The Gift, about cowboy artist Charles Russell.
Tyson revealed he’s a big devotee of the latter. When 17 of the 20 Russell cowboy paintings originally exhibited at the first Calgary Stampede in 1912 were displayed in the Glenbow Museum during the Stampede’s 100th anniversary, Tyson said, “Corb Lund and I went four times. … When you see (Russell’s) paintings … well, it kind of gives me religion.”
Many of Tyson’s New Mexico-flavoured tunes also went over big with the audience, including Navajo Rug, The Road to Las Cruces and Rio Colorado, which was inspired by a river-rafting trip he took through the Grand Canyon. “The whole history of the world is on those cliffs,” he recalled.
The concert wasn’t half over before some fans began shouting out requests for old favourites. While Tyson seemed mildly irked at first, he eventually obliged with Someday Soon, “a song that’s paid a lot of alimony and child support, and given me some nice horses, too.” He also performed Summer Wages as an encore.
And can there ever be a Tyson concert without Four Strong Winds? I seriously doubt the crowd would let him leave the theatre.
When Tyson sang his Western Canadian anthem as a sing-along on Sunday, emotions ran so high, plenty of fans were wiping their eyes by the end.
Many of the audience members who gave him several standing ovations were as old as Tyson — plaid-shirted farmers and ranchers who came with their cowboy hats or baseball caps planted firmly on their heads.
But a few were much younger, sporting trendy clothes and even rasta braids.
One group of younger siblings revealed they came in memory of their father, who passed away recently but was a huge Tyson follower. “This is a tribute to our Dad,” said the daughter.
It must also be a special tribute to Tyson that his music lives on through new generations. These younger Canadians never experienced the mythical West that Tyson paints in his songs of longing and regret — but really, neither did their parents when you think about it.
We all just wish we had.
How amazing that Tyson — who once admitted he’s always found songwriting difficult — is continuing to do it into his eighth decade, with a new album expected out soon.
The concert was opened by Red Deer singer /songwriter Elvin Berthiaume, who deserves to be better known, judging by his lovely, heartfelt tunes. They got a surprising boost when guitarist Amos Garrett showed up out of the blue to accompany his fishing buddy on stage.
The two veteran performers should make a habit of playing together — Garrett and Berthiaume were a terrific duo.