It's been 43 years since I last attended a concert by Gordon Lightfoot. Way back in 1967, at one of many celebrations for Canada's Centennial my brother Al and I saw him (along with Rich Little and The Big Town Boys) at Confederation Park. He was playing with Red Shea and John Stockfish, supporting the just released Did She Mention My Name. I went home, bought a couple albums and learned a bunch of his songs. And then essentially moved on. There was so much else to listen to. So many other songs to play. In 1999 I received the four CD set, Songbook for Christmas, and started listening again. Last night I had the opportunity to be reacquainted with this Canadian legend as he played at Hamilton Place.
We had seats in the 2nd balcony. The stage was set with enough equipment all on top of an Indian carpet, and when the band arrived a buzz ran through the audience. These people were there to sit in front of the man who has become the country's true poet laureate, and they gave him a standing ovation as he walked on-stage. He hadn't even picked up a guitar yet.
Nowadays the band is bigger. Lead guitar is handled by Terry Clements (who's been with Lightfoot since 1970), bass is Rick Haynes (he joined in 1969), Barry Keane has been Gord's drummer since 1976, and newcomer Mike Heffernan joined up in 1981. This unit has remained constant since '87. Wow! No wonder they play together so effortlessly. The sound through the night was beautifully clean, perfectly polished, and a bit quiet. You had to lean forward on your seat to hear from time to time. Of course, maybe it was the Gord wannabe sitting behind us, who sang along with every song, even if he didn't know the words. Or maybe it was the old gent in the next seat, sucking on candies wrapped in what seemed like endless cellophane. At least the girl in front of us was silent as she texted on her cell phone every five minutes!
Apart from all the distractions, Lightfoot did not disappoint. He played two 45 minute sets, separated by a half hour break during which he changed jackets from pink to blue. I said, "The other one must be all sweaty." My companion said, "From what?" And I had to admit, Lightfoot made it seem easy. The band was tight, Gord's guitars were mixed just right. His picking every bit as agile as ever. It was somewhere in the vocal levels that you noticed a difference. He's no longer got that powerful baritone, it has been reduced to a virtual whisper. So leaning forward to hear became more important.
Don't get me wrong, he still hits most (if not all) of the notes, but his halting phrasing is more exaggerated as if singing in bursts of exhalation. If it all wasn't mixed so gorgeously you could be distracted by, say...the guy behind you clapping about three lines in to each song as he realizes which of Gord's Gold is up next.
Lightfoot took us through a career of well known songs, like "Did She Mention My Name," "Let It Ride," "Carefree Highway," "Ribbon of Darkness," "Sundown," and more. He punctuated the classics with less well-known material, after all he has 44 years of tunes to draw from. He told a couple stories trying to connect with the audience. He quipped that "...reports of [his] death have been greatly exaggerated," echoing Mark Twain, in reference to a Twitter rumour from a few weeks ago. He asked "Who the hell would write a song about a loon in love," as he introduced "Ring-Necked Loon" and he alluded to some post-Mariposa shenanigans with Jerry Jeff Walker and Doug Kershaw back in the 60s.
The second set was similar to the first, starting off with "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" and ending with "Canadian Railroad Trilogy" which bracketed "Baby Step Back" and "Home From the Forest" among others. The band left the stage for a few minutes, and then returned for a quick encore of "Blackberry Wine". The girl in front of me texted on her Blackberry, I whined!
It was over. The legend took a couple of bows and waved goodbye. Maybe in another 40 years or so...