Toronto, ON
George Weston Recital Hall - February 4, 2010



TORONTO - A master class in songwriting was offered up by two of the greatest Gords our country has arguably ever offered up - folk icon Gordon Lightfoot and Tragically Hip rocker Gord Downie - on Thursday night at the George Weston Recital Hall. The occasion was the inaugural concert in a new six-part series, If You Could Read My Mind, named for Lightfoot's 1970 breakthrough song.

Being put on by the Canadian Songwriters' Hall of Fame, the brilliant idea - one that was long overdue - was to pair up two artists to perform stripped-down versions of some of their work and discuss their craft in an intimate setting.

Backed by his two longtime bandmates, Terry Clemente on acoustic guitar and Rick Haynes on bass, Lightfoot trotted out Rainy Day People, Shadows, If You Could Read My Mind and Let It Ride over the course of two hours and plenty of conversation.

Downie, wearing a hat and glasses and seated and strumming an acoustic guitar on his own, dipped into The Hip's Morning Moon and Bobcaygeon, his older solo track, Willow Logic, and a brand new song, (The) Hard Canadian, from his upcoming third solo album due in May.

Additionally, emerging songwriter and East Coast folkie Catherine MacLellan, the talented daughter of another Canadian songwriting legend, Gene MacLellan (Snowbird, Put Your Hand In The Hand), performed three songs, including Lightfoot's I'll Be Alright while he sat a few feet away. "I got really high and listened to Gordon Lightfoot albums for 12 hours, " she joked of her preparation.

Still, the small theatre setting was perfect for the animated, funny, revelatory and - at times - touching discussion between the two men and host Laurie Brown.

It was hard not to notice Downie's admiration of the 71-year-old Lightfoot - whose "austerity and economy of words" he praised - as The Hip's lead singer got downright emotional early in the show which was being taped for later broadcast on CBC Radio 2. At first he joked about his obsession when Brown asked the two men what they primarily thought of themselves as - a songwriter, an entertainer, etc.. "I think of myself of Gordon Lightfoot," deadpanned Downie, who would continue the yuks for the duration of the night.

And when Downie went to perform his first song, his nerves and emotions got the better of him. "That was a wrestling match Gord," said Downie to Lightfoot, touching his knee, afterwards. "But I won. I love being here but it's making me crazy. I promised myself I wouldn't cry." "It didn't take long," Lightfoot goodnaturedly ribbed back.

Downie was also asked, via an audience question, about which artist's shoes he'd most like to walk in, and he pointed to Lightfoot's snazzy white ankle boots: "Quite literally, I want those shoes."

As the show wound Downie said to Lightfoot: "Until tonight, I only really knew you from the radio. A 10-year-old kid listening to Sundown. It was like a secret from you to me. Thanks for being a great teacher."

Otherwise, the Orillia, Ont-born Lightfoot said he first began writing songs in Grade 12 - his first ever was a novelty tune called The Hula Hoop Song which was inspired by a Life magazine cover - and was inspired more seriously later by Dylan but admitted that "recording was like going to the dentist." He said he still has a technical rehearsal with his band every Friday to keep his guitar skills up. When Downie asked Lightfoot about dealing with writer's block, the onetime drinker didn't miss a beat: "Alcohol."

Downie, who hails from Kingston, Ont., couldn't remember the first tune he wrote but said he first sang at a house party - The Doors' opus The End of all things - "trying to infuse it with 15-year-old angst." Later, he recalled, he and his Hip bandmates hung out at The Prince George Hotel catching travelling blues legends like John Lee Hooker in concert but Downie admitted he didn't learn to play the acoustic guitar until he was twenty.

Both men agreed their songwriting had been hugely inspired by nature over the years, helping to forge the Canadian identity, with Lightfoot revealing he went on massive canoe trips in Northern Ontario and Quebec, sometimes a month at a time.

The only problem - and it's a good one to have - the CSHF now faces is how to make the next five concerts as entertaining as Thursday night's premiere deluxe edition.

Lightfoot and Downie's natural chemistry set the bar high. The only minor suggested change to the format is that a collaboration between the two men would have been fun to hear or even their versions of each others songs.