Massey Hall 1971


by Peter Goddard

It seems to start the same way every time. In front of Massey Hall's dim stage sits the most mixed audience imaginable; from guys with slick duck- tailed haircuts, to gushy little kids with albums to be autographed.

And when the singer walks on, the applause that greets him is not surprise, nor awe, nor hero worship. It signals recognition.

It's a Gordon Lightfoot concert. But just as the above description holds true for his performance last night - his first of four over the weekend - it could have been applied to any of the other concert series he's given at Massey.

So let me say at the outset, last night's concert was what you might expect. It was predictable to some degree, but never boring; it percolated good spirits at all times, but held few surprises.

The way things were going for him four years ago, Lightfoot might have grown old in comfortable obscurity. By last he'd become a Canadian fixture, like a living Brock monument. But this year, at 33 and after 12 years singing and writing, the oddest thing happened; Lightfoot had a hit single, If You Could Read My Mind.

Having been central for so long in folk's underground, then having a hit record to baptise an entrance into pop's super-circle of TV shows, and Carnegie Hall concerts must have had a comforting effect on Lightfoot.

For, from the start, his performance last night caught a comforting mood. Things were positively cozy. Old songs like Canadian Railroad Trilogy were greeted warmly, affectionately, like old friends.

"In a way," he said earlier in the week, "I'm glad we didn't get a hit before this year. Right now we've got our act down just the way we want it. We know exactly what we can do when we want to do it."

More than anything else, it was Lightfoot's confidence (new-found?) that came across the footlights. He gambled more on interpretation. He relaxed more on stage. And, more than ever before, he allowed us to peek inside his personality, to see him from various angles and attitudes.

The Showman: About two-thirds of the way through the show, he started kibitzing with some old songs. With bassist Rick Haynes and guitarist Red Shea, he tried a few country licks, a few gags (on the Canadian Railroad Trilogy: "You might say we've got some good mileage out of that tune.") and pulled a few faces when he fluffed the timing in The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, ("We haven't sung this for three and a half years.")

The Artist: In introducing his version of Dylan's Girl From The North Country, he mentioned the fact that Elvis Presley was about to record Early Morning Rain. Although this song probably has more cover versions than the Bible, he seemed genuinely pleased that Presley was going to do his song.

The Celebrity: With his distictive high tenor, and forceful singing style, Lightfoot's been his own best interpreter. Last night however, he tried others' songs - a traditional setting of Nova Scotia Farewell, and Leroy Van Dyke's The Auctioneer, as well as the Dylan song. And doing these his touch, phrasing and mood were as sure as if he'd written them.

The Romantic: In the past, Lightfoot's romanticism centered on the country, on its past and its nostalgia.  But in introducing some of his new songs like Summer Side Of Life (the name of his new LP) or Approaching Lavender, his mood became more intimate and more personal.

The Hick: Sure enough, just to let the folks know that success hadn't gone to his pocketbook, Lightfoot tried a couple of Western things. "It said in the newspaper today," he remarked, "that Lightfoot was no longer a hick. Well I'm gonna prove that there's still a little bit of hick left..."

The Entrepreneur: At one point he warned the audience not to buy all the re-issues of his old LPs being put out by his old record company, but to buy his new album instead. True to form, the audience's applause seemed to indicate they'd be buying anything he put out, old, new or whatever.

By the end, after all the applause, after his two encores, after he'd played requests, Lightfoot left the audience with a characteristic gesture.

With his two guitars, one 6-string, the other 12-string, he ambled to the back of the stage. Then just before disappearing, he looked back, just as he'd done in other concerts.

Perhaps it was to see if everyone was really there.

GORDON LIGHTFOOT'S TRIUMPH  - Toronto Telegram  March, 1971

There were white shirts, white turtlenecks and white jeans. There were black dresses, black maxi-coats and black jeans. They filled every single seat in Massey Hall like some statistician's dream ... a concise cross-section of the English-Canadian population.

It was the first of the great Canadian troubadour, Gorson Lightfoot's, series of four annual concerts in what he called "the home town, so to speak." And it was a triumph of no small proportion.

I am not using the word "troubadour" lightly. Last week when I interviewed Gordie, he mentioned several times that people have been trying to describe him and his music for years. And that they haven't succeeded.

According to my dictionary, a troubadour is a medieval romantic or amatory poet of the kind that arose in Provence in the 11th century. That Lightfoot is an amatory poet was proven beyond all doubt at Massey Hall Saturday night.

The year since we last saw Gordie perform has been a period of some personal upheaval for him. He as much said that in our interview when he remarked: "In the last year and a half, my songs have become very personal. They're kind of introspective. It's not a good place to be in."

His performing piece de resistance was If You Could Read My Mind, a track from his new Sit Down Young Stranger album. If you've got a minute sometime, sit down and listen to that song carefully. It is an instant autobiography.

On the album, the song is beautiful, but live - with that blue spotlight probing into the soft lines of Gordie's face and crystallising the beads of sweat in his longish curly hair - it was numbing. In the four minutes of the rendidtion, I got to understand more about Lightfoot the person than in the two years previously.

His new songs were, for me, the most entertaining. But they weren't what you'd call pleasant because it's hard to find joy in another man's sadness. They were, in fact, a series of dramas with either sad endings or compromise.

Not all of his new songs were like that. Some, such as Miguel, are tales of other people's misfortunes and mishaps. But they, too, offer me more esthetic satisfaction than the older, more established Lightfoot stalwarts such as the Canadian Railroad Trilogy, Did She Mention My Name, Ribbon Of
Darkness and even Early Morning Rain.

The audience seemed to prefer the straighter material, even though they did grant generous and deserved applause to The Doomsday Song, which Gordie wrote last fall to perform at US environmental teach-ins.

The lyrics are full of slicing social commentary and satirical put-downs of the establishment, and even a few forbidden words. There were a few muffled "oohs" at a couple of four-letter words, but on the whole, the audience was prepared to accept some satire aimed at some of itself.

Lightfoot was as always disarmingly casual in blue jeans, brown boots, a dark brown suede vest and a yellow and orange shirt with ruffles.  The show's production was near perfect, with a full and mellow sound and imaginative lighting.

Gordie appeared alone save for guitarist Red Shea (who got off some blues licks that were quite incredible) and bass player Rick Haynes. He didn't say much between numbers, but he did perform two encores which still did not satisfy the audience.

Maybe I've missed it before, but I couldn't help but be amazed by Lightfoot's outstanding sense of stage acoustics and light and shade within a song. Nowhere was this more evident than in the Canadian Railroad Trilogy, which Gordie ripped off with unprecedented assurance and meaning.

When it was all over, and as that English-Canadian cross-section marched out to the parking lots and subway stations, you couldn't help speculating on Lightfoot's career.

He has, it is clear, become Canada'a best romantic poet. He is our greatest homegrown singer. He writes outstanding melodies. He makes first-class records, but his songs have even more impact when he sings them on the stage.

In a word, Lightfoot is unique, and so for that matter is the fascinating breadth of his followers.