Ottawa, ON
National Arts Center - November 23, 1996

Gordon Lightfoot in Concert

There's an obvious analogy between Gordon Lightfoot and fine, aged wine and this reviewer would probably use it (the analogy) if he knew more about wine. 

The old master may have lost a tone or two at the top end of his range, but Friday night at the NAC he proved both that his is one of the hugest quality songbooks in the world and, when necessary, he's accumulated enough stagecraft and savvy during his 30-odd year career to glide through the occasional rough spot. 

In so many ways, Lightfoot's songs - perhaps 400 of them spread over his 18 career albums - have come to define Canada.  Classic songs like Canadian Railroad Trilogy, Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, Sit Down Young Stranger and dozens of others have become almost as much a part of Canadian history as the events and people that inspired them. 

And, as much as Gord says he's looking to the future and a new album, trotting out maybe half a dozen new tunes that may or may not make the cut, the mostly full house Friday night was primed for the classics. 

From the minute Lightfoot walked on stage - his chiselled cheekbones and long-legged stride more pronounced than ever - the wildly mixed house, with members spanning at least as many decades as Lightfoot's career, were politely shouting for favorites and politely singing along when they got them. 

There was polite silence for the new tunes, some of which worked better than others.  A Painter Passing Through and Boathouse are classic Lightfoot, part country, part pop and part folk, mildly swinging and entirely catchy and hummable after just one listen.  The lyrics to On Yonge Street, a tribute to the longest street in the world, probably need a little work if they're going to move anybody who doesn't live in the Big Smoke. 

Whatever.  There'll be time enough for the folk to appreciate the new stuff in a couple of years or so.  Lightfoot's fully aware of where his bread's buttered and he was more than careful, particularly in the second set, to keep the hits coming. 

Although in the past, Lightfoot's always seemed to be a little shy on stage, on Friday he showed a slightly new character, offering small talk and self-deprecating jokes during the two-hour-plus show.  For example, he said the tune and lyrics to the Edmund Fitzgerald came to him almost fully formed: "I don't know where it came from .... might've been all those Irish Coffees I was drinking at the time." 

Speaking of which, Lightfoot had the sense to use the Fitzgerald and his other documentary, Railroad Trilogy, as set-stopper, Fitz to close the first set and Trilogy to end the show (except for an encore). 

Lightfoot's veteran backup band -Terry Clements on lead, Mike Heffernan on keys, Barry Keane on drums and the incredible Rick Haynes on bass - were their usual rock solid selves.  Which leads to the one small quibble.  For all of their combined abilities, Lightfoot and the band were occasionally a little too workmanlike.  Clements, for example, is a dandy, dandy guitar player, yet each of his solos and parts sounded exactly like they were originally recorded 10, 20, or 30 years ago.  The signature riff on Sundown, for example, was note-perfect, which is a bit irritating for those of us who've heard it hundreds of times.  A few new arrangements might add a dash to the Lightfoot show, as might, you should forgive the heresy, a couple of background singers. 

And there were more than a thousand people in the hall Friday night who'd disagree with me, so there you go. 

by Norman Provencher - Ottawa Citizen music writer