Published Nov 27, 2014Outside of playing road hockey with Don Cherry, it's hard to imagine a more Canadian activity than seeing Gordon Lightfoot at Massey Hall. It's this entrenchment as a national icon moreso than, but combined with, his legacy as an AM radio hit-maker that will help fill the historic venue for an impressive four straight nights.
Lightfoot introduced himself at his first show last night (November 26) with a joke only slightly older than himself, Mark Twain's "Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated."
Most in the crowd were probably aware of the health problems that have robbed Lightfoot of his signature baritone, but the first few songs were still painful to experience. His voice was cracking, and he was missing most notes. As fate had it, the line, "When I was in my prime," from "Painter Passing Through," presented Lightfoot at his weakest, to the point where there was palpable tension in the venue.
One woman near the front spent the entirety of the concert doing her level best to ruin it for all those in a 50-row vicinity, screaming along off-key, and shouting nonsense to fill any silence. In all her drunken horror she also slurred a line that no music critic would have the guts to write, crowed loud enough that Lightfoot almost certainly heard: "Why does he sound like the Bee Gees?"
Though the woman's din continued, Lightfoot's voice strengthened just in time for a string of hits, including "Carefree Highway," "Cotton Jenny" and "Sundown," all but the last of which sounded just fine within Lightfoot's current range.
After intermission, the president of Massey Hall and Roy Thomson Hall, joined by Elizabeth Dowdeswell, the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, presented the 76-year-old troubadour with the first-ever Massey Hall Honours Award. Lightfoot seemed a bit embarrassed by the whole process, but took a photo with the pair nonetheless. [The photo can be seen at the bottom of the review. - ed.]
The second set featured three of Lightfoot's masterpieces, "Canadian Railroad Trilogy," "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" and "If You Could Read My Mind." In his crushed velvet suit, somehow looking as vital as he did vulnerable, he really did seem like, as he sings, "a ghost you can't see."
Bob Dylan has long advocated for Lightfoot as one of the major songwriters, and there are many similarities at this point in their careers. Neither sound anything like they used to, and both are victims of insensitive remarks from fans calling for their retirement. But Dylan works within his limited range to bark out lyrics in a way that is fresh and exciting, whereas the nature of Lightfoot's material traps him into doing his most accurate representation of it, difficult though it may be.
Also, where Dylan's band is heavily relied upon, Lightfoot's equally capable one rarely steps out of the background - there was one solo in the whole set of more than 25 songs. Though battered and frail, Lightfoot's voice will carry the load during the 88 dates he'll play this year. Some will complain, but the real fans know that "heroes often fail," and in doing so, sometimes provide their most heart-rending work.