Lightfoot looks a bit cadaverous. He’s 78 years old, which seems impossible. His voice has weakened from that deep, easy baritone of the 1970s to a reedy tenor. He joked about, indirectly, explaining he now played a lot of the songs in the key of C. But it was a fine show. He has a hell of a songbook, the band was very good and the memories very strong.
(It’s a cell phone photo, and pretty pixellated. The Egyptian won’t let WC carry a real camera to its shows.) The voice? Three things, WC thinks: old age, years of heavy smoking and the emergency tracheotomy back in 2002. He seemed to be dealing with some allergies, too. His singing actually improved a bit as the show moved along. But time doesn’t run backwards. The voice is mostly gone.
This was probably the third or fourth time WC has seen Lightfoot live. There was even a show in Fairbanks some decades ago. Maybe one in Eugene in the early 1970s? And certainly one in Chicago. Lightfoot has been writing and recording since the early 1960s. When Peter, Paul & Mary came to Fairbanks in 1966 – a fundraising show for A-67, the Alaska centennial – they sang “Early Morning Rain,” a Lightfoot song. Elvis Presley recorded that song. Lightfoot saw Elvis perform that song. Lightfoot even tried to see Elvis after the show but, as he told us, “Elvis had left the building.”
Lightfoot treated us to some more recent songs (he stopped writing a few years ago) and a nice selection of his older songs, including many of his hits. The audience was terrific; there was a lot of love for this pillar of North American folk music. Lightfoot has always been a very good guitar player and, despite a stroke in 2006 – in mid-concert, no less – that temporarily paralyzed two fingers of his right hand, he’s still very good. The version of “Sundown” was especially good, rocking and raucous, a garage band spin on a blues tune. The old geezer still has his chops
Lightfoot has been accused of selling out folk traditions to pop sensibilities. It’s true that he has a Paul Simon-like ability to craft a popular song. But he has never shied from more traditional folk music messages. Consider “Sit Down Young Stranger,” Lightfoot’s welcoming message to Canada’s influx of American draft dodgers during the Vietnam War:
Now will you try to tell us
You been too long at school
That knowledge is not needed
That power does not rule
That war is not the answer
That young men should not die
Sit down young stranger
I wait for your reply
– Gordon Lightfoot, “Sit Down Young Stranger”
Over the years, Lightfoot didn’t forget the roots of folk music. The great Ian Tyson, a fellow Canadian, was one of Lightfoot’s mentors. You can hear Tyson’s influence in much of Lightfoot’s music: clean melody lines, honest lyrics and a story to tell.
One of the few of his hits he didn’t play was “Bring Out Ol’ Dan’s Records,” which celebrates playing the vinyl of a long-dead friend:
Get out old Dan’s records
Get out old Dan’s records
We will dance the whole night long
It’s fun to play the old time songs
If old Dan could see us now
I know he’d be so proud
– Gordon Lightfoot, “Old Dan’s Records”
Which is too bad, because that song captures perfectly the mood on stage and in the audience during Saturday night’s show.
Gordon Lightfoot is something of a saint among Canadians. They’ve heaped awards on him, including an Order of the British Empire award. WC won’t argue for sainthood. But he’s a damned fine artist. It was a treat to see him again, to hear those great old songs and have an opportunity to applaud a pretty amazing artist and his career.
(It hasn’t escaped WC’s notice that John Mellencamp, at age 65, is the youngest musician WC has seen so far this year. Carlos Santana is next; he’s 70 years old. Maybe WC’s music taste is as ossified as Brian Wilson‘s knees. Get over it.)