When: Mon., March 13, 8 p.m. 2017
In the mid-sixties, being a singer with an acoustic guitar meant being compared to Dylan. Strangely, though, no one called Gordon Lightfoot, who issued his self-titled debut LP in 1966, the Canadian Dylan. He was too polished, too accessible. You could still hear traces of the kid who learned to sing in church in his rich vibrato. It was a solid start, and the record yielded one of his finest songs in "Early Morning Rain," but his unmistakable earnestness was a touch behind the explosively creative times.
Lightfoot would have to wait about five more years to get his moment. In the void left by the recently officially broken-up Beatles, changing the world and freeing one's mind were out as song subjects; introspective and personal ruminations were in. Thus, Lightfoot landed his first U.S. hit in 1971 with "If You Could Read My Mind," a hushed, intimate tune inspired by his divorce. Improbably, it was after the moment passed that Lightfoot enjoyed his greatest success with "Sundown" and "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." Looking at the current state of the pop charts, it seems incredible that Lightfoot nearly topped the charts in late 1976 with a six-and-a-half-minute story-song about an actual shipwreck in the era of Rod Stewart and the Bee Gees.
Yet his was a funny kind of fame. It has never been hip to be a Gordon Lightfoot fan. Bob Dylan's cover of "Early Morning Rain" (which was, admittedly, on his only universally maligned record, Self Portrait) did nothing to up the man's hip quotient. Even in Canada, the rugged-featured, bearded baritone was both revered as a national treasure and the subject of years of continual lampooning on SCTV, the Canuck equivalent of SNL. By the early eighties, the hits had stopped coming, and Lightfoot halted his career for a few years after his 1986 LP, East of Midnight, suffered from a particularly vicious critical pile-on.
Happily, time ameliorates the vicissitudes of taste, and Lightfoot's skilled songwriting and beautifully toned voice continue to age like fine wine at this far juncture. The range of folks who have recorded his songs—including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Barbra Streisand, and Nico—attests to the songs' versatility and staying power.
Lightfoot has spent most of his more recent days conquering personal demons and major health issues, and he has not recorded new material in more than a decade, but with a songbook this deep, that's forgivable. And that shipwreck song, a classic of the narrative genre, hasn't lost its power to evoke the ice-water mansion of the deep. —David Klein