At 59, the Canadian troubadour continues to embody the best of the '60s
folk traditions. Westbury Music Fair. Seen Saturday night.
A sizeable portion of the audience at Westbury Music Fair Saturday night started snickering when, in introducing "Early Morning Rain," the song that put him on the musical map during the folk craze of the mid-1960s, Gordon Lightfoot noted that the tune eventually became so popular that even Elvis recorded it.
"No, no," he said, sensing he had been misinterpreted. "He did a very heartfelt version, and, interestingly, he changed one line of the song. Instead of saying, `I'm stuck here on the ground / As cold and drunk as I can be,' he sang, `Cold and drunk as I might be.' And you know what?" he said, raising an eyebrow. "That is a better line!"
It is precisely that kind of attention to detail that helped build Gordon Lightfoot's estimable reputation as a songwriter's songwriter during the latter part of the 1960s and, thanks to the folk-edged country-rock boom of the first half of the 1970s, a bona fide hit-making star.
That he is now some 20 years removed from his last major recording success is something the still-ruggedlooking (and sounding) 59-year-old troubadour from Canada apparently holds in disarmingly healthy perspective.
On the title track of his just-released album, tellingly titled "A Painter Passing Through," he notes that "Yesterday is gone, yesterday is great/Yesterday is strong/Remembering can wait . . . If you want to know my secret don't come runnin' after me/For I am just a painter passing through in history."
Of course, if there is a secret to Lightfoot's lengthy and productive career, it's not only his idiosyncratic composing style (whether performing an old chestnut such as the imposing late'60s suite, "Canadian Railroad Trilogy," or the new, wanderlusting "Drifters," his music always sounds of a piece), but also the recurring universal themes embedded in his work.
Writing often about, on the one hand, nature's inscrutable invincibility ("The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," the whale-saluting "Ode to Big Blue"), and, on the other, modern man's stubborn, destructive refusal to accept it ("Cherokee Band," about the clash between American Indian and Southern white culture in the early 1900s), as well as the ongoing internal struggles over the directions of one's heart (exemplified by his ever-unfolding 1971 classic, "If You Could Read My Mind"), Lightfoot continues to embody the bedrock values that the '60s folk movement was founded on.
Greeted not only with a respectful batch of written requests placed onstage before he even began, but with any lull in his free-flowing between-song patter (he talked about everything from the Stanley Cup playoffs to Sinatra, whose self-started Reprise label is where Lightfoot has recorded since 1970) filled with ongoing shouts for songs from throughout his career, Lightfoot's two set, nearly two-hour show featured more than enough familiar pleasers to go around. In addition to those mentioned above, Lightfoot snuck in one nearly-out-of-one'sconsciousness gem - the antiwar '70 anthem "Sit Down Young Stranger."
"I never had a dollar that I didn't earn with pride," he sang. Nearly 30 years later - and recognizing that Lightfoot didn't release any albums between 1986 and 1993 because he didn't feel he had enough to say - that's undoubtedly still so.
Long Island Newsday by Billy Altman