By Brad Wheeler
Globe and Mail Published on Saturday, Feb. 06, 2010
Gordon Lightfoot and Gord Downie
at George Weston Recital Hall in Toronto
An evening of music and moderated conversation with Gordon Lightfoot and Gord Downie was offbeat, rare, distinctive, sometimes shaky, often entertaining and only occasionally illuminating. Early on, Downie, the contemplative Tragically Hip rocker and occasional poet, was asked about the night’s topic, songwriting. He said he enjoyed it – that it was a “real mystery.”
It still is. In the first of the If You Could Read My Mind behind-the-music series of concerts presented by the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, Downie waxed eloquent about creating a place that was “ample and grateful” through song, as through poetry. More austerely, Lightfoot spoke of the demands of a recording contract as his muse.
There is jeopardy in poking around in things revered. “Its mystery is its life,” Walter Bagehot said of royalty (or maybe it was poutine or Bob Dylan). “We must not let daylight in upon the magic.” Music journalist Laurie Brown, the moderator, predicted “I don’t really know what’s going to happen tonight, but it will be a happening.”
And so, off into the mystic. Right off the bat, the two musically iconic Canadians veered perilously away from their theme, describing themselves as entertainers, not songwriters: “First and foremost, I like to perform,” explained Lightfoot, who no longer writes or records. Downie agreed, saying he started out as an entertainer, and that a performer is what he’d inevitably be. To hear Lightfoot tell it, songwriting was a chore, the recording of songs a trial akin to a visit to the dentist.
They spoke seated on stools, Downie, holding an acoustic guitar, deferentially to the left of Lightfoot. The unscripted conversation was interspersed with performances. For his, Lightfoot walked five steps or so over to where his long-time band mates Rick Haynes softly played electric bass and Terry Clements neatly hit lead notes on his acoustic guitar. Downie presented his material alone, not moving from his high chair, inches away and in the shadow of the Sundown singer.
The two were a study in contrasts – Lightfoot, the gentle, worn, melancholic balladeer of Rainy Day People, Shadows, If You Could Read My Mind and Let it Ride, and Downie, the earthy strummer with a style that was masculine and melodically sturdy. Of Downie’s presentation of the image-laden Morning Moon, Lightfoot said he admired the younger man’s energy and persistence. “That’s my thing,” replied the somewhat unnerved Downie, saying he felt like he was playing with boxing gloves on. “I love being with you here,” he told his hero. “It’s making me crazy.”
At one point the stage was tuned over to Prince Edward Island-based Catherine MacLellan, the beautiful, pure-voiced daughter of the late songwriter Gene MacLellan. She performed gracefully; with each unfailingly reached note, Taylor Swift’s popularity became more unaccountable.
Downie stayed away from his Tragically Hip classics, choosing solo material (Willow Logic) and an unreleased piece (Hard Canadian, from his forthcoming album). The exception was Bobcaygeon, normally a wind-swept sing-along in the arenas. Its smaller form was no less affecting.
Asked if certain songs were too personal to sing, Lightfoot said no, explaining that some poignant memories are worth forgetting – “My life has been quite complicated” – but that the show must go on.
Downie verbally hugged Lightfoot towards the end, thanking his “teacher.” Songwriters can never be thanked enough. Downie, Lightfoot and all the others pull rabbits out of hats tune by tune. Understanding what they do isn’t so important. Just be amazed – they deserve it.