Gordon Lightfoot
at Calvin Theatre,
Northampton, Mass.
(20 September 2008)

He's been in the music business for more years than many of us have been alive. So it was a real treat to finally have an opportunity to see Gordon Lightfoot in person. And I must say that, unexpectedly, this concert was the quietest one I have ever attended.

Lightfoot walked on stage dressed in black pants and a white dress shirt that peeked out from above the lapels of a blue velvet jacket. His shoulder-length hair, wispy brown and tinged with gray, was brushed back from his face. He carried an acoustic guitar with him and launched into the deliberate pace of "Cotton Jenny." Accompanied by his four-piece band of veteran musicians, the singer deftly entertained us with selections from various points in his career. (If you were familiar only with the early albums, culminating with Gord's Gold in 1975, then you knew only half of the tunes this evening.) Since he's written more than 500 songs, he had a large catalogue to choose from.

With "Carefree Highway," it was apparent the voice we were hearing was much thinner than on the recordings we were used to. The intonation and enunciation were there, but not the power behind them. While Lightfoot has generally recovered from the severe medical problems that sidelined him in 2002 -- and put him in a coma for more than a month back then -- the experience has obviously diminished his vocal projection. The audience soon learned to be church-mouse quiet, both during the music and in his introductions, and they softly helped him sing the most popular choruses. His bandmates too scaled down their own performances so as not to overtake him ... though at times drummer Barry Keane broke through a bit more energetically than was necessary.

"Sea of Tranquility" provided the first opportunity for lead guitarist Terry Clements to show off his talent during a mid-song solo. I had never heard "14 Karat Gold" before, and I quickly decided that I liked it. "Minstrel of the Dawn" remains utterly autobiographical: "The minstrel of the dawn is here / To make you laugh and bend your ear." And now, those later lines are even more appropriate: "He's like an old time troubador / Just wanting life and nothing more / Look into his shining eyes / And if you see a ghost don't be surprised / Like me and you / He's trying to get into things / More happy than blue."

It was followed by "Never Too Close" and the playfully repetitive "In My Fashion." "A Painter Passing Through" shares a similar storyline with "Minstrel" and certainly describes its author today: "Once upon a time, I was in a daze when / I was in my prime, once along the ways / If you want to know my secret don't come running after me / For I am just a painter passing through in history." Wow. Too true. Then came "Shadows," "Beautiful" and "The Watchman's Gone." Some members of the audience tried to clap along with the rhythm of "Ribbon of Darkness" but lost the effort after a few stanzas. When Lightfoot reached the last line of the song and held overlong that last "darkness," the whole hall waited in anticipation for the final words, "over me." But Gordon eventually smiled instead and started strumming the introduction for "Sundown." Now that was something we could all sing, if we could just remember the order of the various versions of the chorus. Which one came first: "Sometimes I think it's a shame" or "Sometimes I think it's a sin"? Ah, well. It was fun just to take a stab at it. Thank goodness Lightfoot himself still remembered all the lyrics and could lead the way.

Throughout the evening, between songs, he calmly reminisced about his career and the people he's met and the success he's had. "This one was a surprise," he said. "Then again, it was a surprise to them, too." That was his way of introducing "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," featuring again the solo guitar work of Clements. Hearing that mournful opening always takes me back a few years, to when I visited the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The museum display features the fate of the Edmund Fitzgerald, and the sound of Lightfoot's musical storytelling accompanies you as you walk through the exhibit. It was a chilling experience, and it comes right back to me whenever I hear that music. Then again, you have to wonder: Why was a virtual sea shanty popular enough to climb the Top 40 charts back in 1976? Well, maybe the theme was one we were kind of used to. After all, we had already heard about that "mystery ship" and its "73 men sailing off in history" from Blues Image's "Ride, Captain, Ride." And what were the odds that Brandy's sailor/boyfriend would avoid being shipwrecked, since the sea was his life, his love and his lady? (At least, according to the group Looking Glass.) So maybe it was just more of the same for us at the time -- except that the story Lightfoot told was real. And for those of us who lived inland, it was somewhat startling to discover that even in modern times, ships could still be lost. It was a revelation. And after making it this evening, Lightfoot and his band took a short intermission.

When they returned, the singer-songwriter had changed into blue tuxedo trousers with suspenders and a merry blue-and-white flowered Hawaiian shirt. Again, he brought a 12-string guitar out with him and started the second set with "Triangle" and "Hangdog Hotel Room." He switched to a traditional six-string for "Clouds of Loneliness," "Waiting for You" and "If Children Had Wings." The pensive melody, "If You Could My Read My Mind," was another trip down memory lane and another opportunity to sing along. It brought forth a deserved ovation from the crowd. "Don Quixote" was a fun tune that's always been one of my favorites. "Through the woodland, through the valley / Comes a horseman, wild and free / Tilting at the windmills passing / Who can the young horseman be?" But again, it's easy to mix up the lyrics, the farther on they go. Lightfoot didn't miss a beat with them. He followed up with a rocky "Sundown"-wanna-be, "Baby Step Back."

Some of Lightfoot's songs have been performed by other artists. Before he did "Early Morning Rain," he noted that Elvis Presley had changed a few words in the lyrics when he recorded that song. When he got a chance to meet Elvis, Gordon thanked him for the change because it made more sense. But here it was Lightfoot himself who sang "Early Morning Rain," and for the first time this evening, his clear tones reached the far corners of the auditorium. It was as though he had finally found a vocal footing for the night. Bassist Rick Haynes added quick bass flourishes between verses. This was one of the best selections of the concert. Then, on this fall evening in New England, we were transported to another season with "Song for a Winter's Night" -- "If I could only have you near / To breathe a sigh or two / I would be happy just to hold the hands I love / On this winter night with you." Barry Keane's jingle bells added the necessary atmosphere to the last song of the set. The group came back onstage to rock us with "Blackberry Wine" for an encore. And then they were gone, after Lightfoot shook hands with a few of the front-row ticket-holders.

Gordon Lightfoot will be turning 70 in November, and despite everything he's been through, he's still singing, playing, writing and touring, clocking in more than 60 concerts this year alone. There may be more lines on his face, and his vocals might not be strong, but he's still one talented, professional musician. His foundations are his storytelling ability and the timbre of his distinctive voice, now sounding more Bob Dylan-like than it ever did before. He stood at the center microphone for both sets of the concert, and strummed either a capoed 6-string or a 12-string acoustic guitar for each song. ("No more changing keys or transposing for me!") The members of his band of four (guitarist Terry Clements, bassist Rick Haynes, drummer Barry Keane and Mike Heffernan on keyboards) have all been with him since the 1980s, so he was surrounded by friends. And every once in a while, you could catch a mischievous glint in his eye and the glimpse of a sly smile. Here's hoping he can continue to entertain appreciative audiences for many years to come.

"The minstrel of the dawn is gone / I hope he'll call before too long / And if you meet him you must be / The victim of his minstrelsy / He'll sing for you a song / The minstrel of the dawn."

by Corinne H. Smith
25 October 2008

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