Three years ago, Gordon Lightfoot's career took a very unexpected turn—it almost ended. Before the second show of a two-night stand in his hometown of Orillia, Ontario, the durable Canadian singer/songwriter collapsed with extreme stomach pains caused by an abdominal aneurism that nearly killed him. Emergency surgery followed and Lightfoot spent six weeks in a coma. A Canadian icon, Lightfoot's condition was front-page news north of the border and was well reported here in the United States, too. Numerous scheduled shows were cancelled and there was concern that perhaps Lightfoot's career as a touring artist was over.
Lightfoot, however, had different plans. After waking up from the coma in the hospital, the artist guided his band through the process of finishing work on his 20th album of original material, Harmony.
On Wednesday, October 26th, a fully-recovered, 67 year-old Lightfoot made his first appearance in New Jersey since his collapse. Playing to a near capacity crowd at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, Lightfoot and his band, which includes Terry Clements on guitar, Mike Heffernan on keyboards, Rick Haynes on bass, and Barry Keane on drums, preformed 26 tunes.
In addition to songs from the new album, including the title track, "Harmony," "Clouds of Loneliness," and "Couchiching," the show featured classic Lightfoot songs from throughout his five decade-long career. "If You Could Read My Mind" from 1970's Sit Down Young Stranger, sounds as sweet and melodic today as it ever has. Other highlights from the show included "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," one of Lightfoot's most famous tunes, "Sundown," and "Early Morning Rain," another one of Lightfoot's more famous numbers.
It's difficult to pigeonhole Lightfoot into one particular style of songwriting. Lyrically, some of his songs are ballads told from the third person, quickly and effectively transporting the listener to a certain setting just the way a short story would. In "Ghosts of Cape Horn," Lightfoot creates a musical backdrop for his story about the tall ships sailing around the tip of South America with a style of fingerpicking reminiscent of an old sea shanty. Lightfoot's ability to meld his words and music together seamlessly creates a distinct sense of time and place that couldn't otherwise be felt. Several of Lightfoot's songs, such as "Canadian Railroad Trilogy" for example, are unique in that they are comprised of several distinct movements the way that many classical pieces are. In addition, Lightfoot still has his more traditional folk songs, like "Ribbon of Darkness" and "Old Dan's Records," which never fail to please audiences. A testament to his songwriting ability, folk legends Peter, Paul, and Mary found success on the charts covering "Early Morning Rain" and "For Lovin' Me" before Lightfoot ever even recorded them himself.
Lightfoot's voice is somewhat raspier than before his illness, but it's still warm and engaging. Crisp, rapid fingerpicking has become a trademark of his guitar playing, and, despite his age, Lightfoot is as precise and forceful a player as ever. The near sold-out crowd gave him huge applause and a standing ovation at the end of his set.
Of his illness affecting his songwriting or coming through in his music, Lightfoot says only, "It just made me want to get back on the job more…that's all."
He wanted to be back on the job so much so that, determined beyond a doubt to put out Harmony, Lightfoot had his band build up the album around demo tracks he had recorded before his illness. After recording the additional tracks, the band would send the demos back to Lightfoot, who was orchestrating the album while recuperating in the hospital by listening to the demos and guiding the group towards his vision for each track.
Now that Harmony has been out for over a year, are there any thoughts about a new album? Lightfoot says he has all the material ready if he so desires, but there's a catch.
"I could [record a new album] if I wanted to," he explains, "but you have to put yourself in a state of isolation to do that."
If one thing more than all else, Lightfoot's near-death experience has taught him the value of being with your loved ones.
"You'll always wish you'd spent more time with the people you care about," says Lightfoot.
So fans hoping for a new album might have wait a little. Newly reinvigorated by the power of life and music, Lightfoot simply points out, "There's just so much to do."
By - Anthony D'Amato