Toronto, ON

Massey Hall - November 16, 2006


Iconic songwriter back on stage after near-fatal illness

Ted Shaw
CanWest News Service

Friday, November 17, 2006

That famous whisky-smooth baritone has returned, and so has Gordon Lightfoot's confidence as he embarks on another leg of his first North American tour in four years.

"I was worried about the voice for a year or so," said the 68-year-old legendary folksinger.

"It just seemed to come back after about a year and a half."

That was 18 months after he suffered a nearly fatal aneurysm in his abdomen in late 2002.

It was another 10 months before he dared perform on a stage.

"It was a long time for a guy who loves to do shows," Lightfoot said from his Toronto home. "I was really concerned about my playing. My hands didn't seem to want to work properly and I had to practise that for the longest time."

The setback also had him thinking about the musical organization he put together nearly four decades ago. Several people, including his long-serving band, rely on Lightfoot's talent.

"I was a terrible mess there for a while," he said.

The collapse occurred in his hometown of Orillia, prior to a fundraising concert. "It was four in the afternoon, I was on the floor of my dressing room, and I wasn't getting up."

Later from his hospital bed in Hamilton, Lightfoot instructed his band to add instrumental tracks to 10 songs he'd recorded just before the incident.

Two years later, the CD Harmony was released, Lightfoot's last studio album. Lightfoot's physical recovery was aided by the strict diet and exercise regimen he'd begun in 1982 after giving up alcohol.

While he tours an average 50 days a year now, another 130 days he works out in a gym. He also makes sure he eats a full breakfast and dinner.

"I can afford to take a break from the performing, but I can't afford to take time away from the exercise. I used to feel fatigue on the road, but not anymore."

The slightest "energy lag," he said, is picked up on by his audiences.

"They're going to feel it out in the crowd, and I don't want that. That's my measuring stick of how I'm doing."

Recently, the Canadian musical hall-of-famer and multiple Juno winner was honoured when Johnny Cash's posthumous American Recordings V release included a cover of If You Could Read My Mind.

The song, which dates from 1970, is one of three that Lightfoot sings at every concert. The other two are Canadian Railroad Trilogy and Sundown.

"It's mind-boggling, humbling really when someone covers my songs," said Lightfoot, who estimated there are maybe 80 to 90 versions of If You Could Read My Mind, his most-covered song.

"The first was a disco version in 1972 by a singer named Viola Willis. It was a beautiful version of it."

In 2004, a tribute titled Beautiful contained several covers of Lightfoot tunes, among them Murray McLauchlan doing Home From the Forest and Jesse Winchester on Sundown.

"I was really, really happy with the way they did it. I sometimes wonder whether I deserve this kind of consideration. I don't jump up and down and cheer when someone covers a song. I'm more interested in how it's done. Did they do it right? How does it sound?"

Lightfoot is back touring with his band of many years, which includes Terry Clements, with him since 1972, and Rick Haynes who joined in 1969.

"We're like Barnum and Bailey," Lightfoot said about his continued appeal.

"People of all ages come to see us. We've been really lucky as far as demographics go."

He hasn't recorded any new material lately.

"I'm coasting right now," he said, adding he rehearses several times a week even when he's not touring in order to perfect the 40 songs he takes with him on the road.

"This is my job," Lightfoot said. "I have always approached things professionally. I don't like surprises."



Special to The Globe and Mail

Gordon Lightfoot

At Massey Hall, In Toronto on Thursday Nov. 16

Growing old. It ain't pretty, but it sure as hell beats the alternative.

Which is why it was still so good to see Gordon Lightfoot gracing the Massey Hall stage on the first evening of his four-night Toronto run.

That he was there at all is still something of a miracle. In 2002, in the middle of a similar appearance, he had to be airlifted to a hospital in Hamilton, the victim of a major abdominal hemorrhage that could well have killed him. (My mother was in the same hospital that day, being treated for a similar condition by the same surgeon -- Mr. Lightfoot and I are forever bound by that, whether he knows it or not.)

It took him a long time to recover. And frankly, he's never really been as robust since. But he's a wiry old icon, still happy to be up onstage cranking out the hits from his 40-odd years of defining the singer-songwriter genre.

Is his voice as strong as it was 30 years ago? Perhaps not, but is yours? Or your father's? Or your grandfather's? All that said, it's still a bit of a shock to hear Lightfoot's reedy and breathy voice today while mentally comparing it to the earthy, solid baritone it was back in the sixties and seventies.

The guitar playing is as good as ever, though, largely because, well, Lightfoot was never really known for his guitar playing. As he says himself, he really only knows five chords. The music? That's what the backing quartet is for.

So this concert is for the memories -- not so much the memories of Lightfoot and the stronger man he was in his youth, but for the songs, and the memories we associate with them. It was obvious that most in this audience identified with the songs from their own earlier days.

And there were lots of them sprinkled through the two-hour set. Early on: Cotton Jenny, not really a Canadian-sounding song, being about the Deep South and all, but one that felt like it, having been best known as a hit for Anne Murray. Then later: Beautiful, perhaps his most haunting and romantic ballad, a song played at the end of every high-school dance in Canada in the seventies.

And the travellin' songs, of course, the ones that defined him as much as anything else -- Carefree Highway, perhaps the ultimate road song, and Canadian Railroad Trilogy, with its looping rhythms echoing the sound of an old steam engine roaring down the track.

Now 68 (his birthday was yesterday, a fact acknowledged by the crowd when it sang a raucous Happy Birthday), Lightfoot seems more determined than ever to reach out to his audience, delivering little anecdotes and asides in his terse, almost shy manner.

"Is the Don River up yet?" he inquired early on, referring to the downpour that had deluged Toronto. "God, what a night to come out to a show, eh?" That would have been a perfect time to launch into Rainy Day People, but he saved it for a few songs up the road.

Interestingly enough, for a singer / songwriter so strictly defined as a Canadian icon, many of Lightfoot's songs have an American bent. Old Dan's Records, a welcome but surprising choice, has an Appalachian feel. Sundown seems more Arizona than Alberta, and even the Edmund Fitzgerald was an American ore carrier. But what this suggests, and what we need to be reminded of once in a while, is that Lightfoot's music was always more multidimensional than the CBC's constant replaying of Alberta Bound and Railroad Trilogy would suggest.

On this night, Lightfoot was accompanied by his long-time quartet of Rick Haynes (bass), Michael Heffernan (keyboards), Barry Keane (drums) and the sublime Terry Clements on lead guitar. So quiet as to be almost unobtrusive, they gave new meaning to the term "backing musicians," so far in the background did they seem to be. But given Lightfoot's now less-vibrant vocal abilities, pulling the volume knob back down to three was a necessary touch.

There was one troubling sidelight though.

Go to a Rush concert or a Tragically Hip show, or even a Burton Cummings / Randy Bachman Guess Who revival, and you will see a multigenerational audience, kids and teenagers sprinkled throughout the crowd. Lightfoot's audience lacks that. Suffice it to say that when Lightfoot mentioned a slide rule in one of his songs, most of the audience knew exactly what he was talking about.

Too bad, because so much of Lightfoot's work not only stands the test of time, it transcends it. Songs like If You Could Read My Mind, Beautiful and Carefree Highway, well, they just never grow old.