Gordon Lightfoot | 10.01.2008

g_winnipeg.jpg “We haven’t been to St. Louis for 14 years.”

 

 

 

 

Fox Theatre, St. Louis

Expectations can sure affect the concert-going experience. When I found out that Canadian minstrel Gordon Lightfoot was making a rare appearance at the Fox Theatre, something told me I had to be there. I’d never seen Lightfoot before, but he was one of the truly resonant and unique voices in the ‘70s singer-songwriter pantheon. My associations with Lightfoot were all pleasant ones—the time my sister’s former brother-in-law performed tunes like “Don Quixote” and others that he liked on his brand-new Martin guitar during down time at a wonderful family reunion at Friday Harbor, Washington; my other sister’s passion for the song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and her detailed description of the maritime disaster the song is based on, while our family was actually on a boat ride in Lake Michigan; the omnipresence of great Lightfoot tunes like “If You Could Read My Mind” and “Sundown” on the radio during the mid-70s. Lightfoot just seemed like one of those ultimate sensitive guys with an acoustic guitar, the kind of songwriter whose songs were almost guaranteed to melt the girls’ hearts if you could play even rudimentary versions of them on a casual date.

Anyway, all these things were on my mind as I sat at The Fox and waited for the singer to stroll out. He’d been sick for a long time, I heard — but I knew nothing about the details. I was just glad Lightfoot was back at it, gracing the St. Louis fans with his music. Well, it was something of a jolt to witness the gaunt, aged figure that soon emerged. The years have been kinder to some musicians than others, and they’ve clearly taken a toll on ol’ Gordon. Dressed in black pants and a bright red jacket, Lightfoot opened with “Cotton Jenny,” and sang in a voice markedly different than the deep, resonant tenor he’d been known for all those years ago. He couldn’t hit high notes comfortably—his voice disappeared in a sort of strained rasp any time he needed to head for anything but the middle registers. This was especially evident on classic tunes like “Carefree Highway” and “Beautiful,” the latter of which requires a kind of romantic delicacy that Lightfoot might not be able to achieve anymore. Yet Lightfoot was spirited and friendly, and the crowd, though more hushed than normal, was clearly with him. “We haven’t been to St. Louis for 14 years,” he declared, earning enthusiastic applause.

It’s worth mentioning that this concert was likely the quietest I’ve ever attended featuring a full band. The volume was half what you’d expect for a show like this—meaning you could hear every note Lightfoot casually picked on his guitar, and everything his band members played as well. Not a bad thing, and the band played with warmth and casual grace. But the great sound and fine acoustics also meant that Lightfoot’s difficulties were obvious as well. He really struggled on the song “In My Fashion,” and the lyrics were unbearably poignant considering what Lightfoot’s been through in recent years: “In my fashion I have been a good man/I have loved and I have lost/Ever after I will be remembered/In my fashion, in my way/There have been times, I have seen the reaper/In the bad times, and in the good…” This sort of feeling was only amplified with songs like “A Painter Passing Through,” with sentiments such as “Once upon a time…I was in my prime.” Lightfoot merrily told the crowd that he “only needed one finger to play this one,” but as he sang of how “yesterday is gone,” it was only too obvious how apt that observation was.

At any rate, there was undeniable pleasure hearing old classics like “Rainy Day People” and the epic “Edmund Fitzgerald,” easily one of the finest and most evocative folk-rock tunes ever written about a real-life disaster. Lightfoot’s rendition here was missing the original’s eerie atmospherics, but the familiarity was somehow still reassuring. And “Ribbon of Darkness,” for which the band picked up the tempo, was a definite highlight. “Sundown” and other hits (Lightfoot had more than you might remember) always earned warm applause, but you got the feeling it was more for the audience’s memory of the songs rather than the restrained (and sometimes just strained) versions of them here.

It’s great that this soulful Canadian survived his health crises, and hopefully his voice will regain some of its former strength and emotional resonance in time. The mixed blessing this concert represented provided much food for thought as to whether a performer’s ability to sound like himself and meet audience’s expectations was of paramount importance, or if simply showing up and doing the best you can was perhaps enough. I’ll be pondering that one for awhile.|Kevin Renick

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