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Old 05-27-2011, 08:43 AM   #1
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Default Gordon Lightfoot returns to Massey Hall in his low-key fashion

Gordon Lightfoot
At Massey Hall in Toronto on Wednesday

In some ways, the most striking thing about Gordon Lightfoot’s appearance at Massey Hall Wednesday was how unremarkable it seemed.

He is, at 72, the acknowledged dean of Canadian singer-songwriters, and by the end of his four-night stand he will have played more than 150 shows at Massey, a record it’s doubtful anyone will ever break. Yet his concert Wednesday was hardly a victory lap; instead of a celebration, it came off as just another night on the road for Lightfoot and his band.

Not that there was anything pedestrian about the performance. Apart from guitarist Carter Lancaster, who replaced the late Terry Clements early this year, Lightfoot’s band has been with him for decades, and the backup they provide is so effortlessly appropriate that it’s easy to overlook how brilliant the playing is.

Likewise, Lightfoot’s singing and playing is deceptively low-key, coming off as casually offhand instead of strikingly accomplished. He doesn’t move much onstage, and his right hand seems so still when finger-picking that it’s almost hard to believe he’s the one producing that swirl of notes. There’s no showmanship here – for Lightfoot, the playing’s the thing.

For instance, when they closed the second set with Canadian Railroad Trilogy, it was easy enough to react to the epic scope of the song. But there was also a quiet virtuosity to the playing beneath Lightfoot’s story-telling vocals, as the band navigated an impressive set of rhythm and tempo changes without making so much as a ripple in the music’s flow. Clearly, age is not a factor with these guys.

True, his voice has thinned over the years, and high notes like the one at the end of If Children Had Wings sometimes seem to evaporate on their way to the microphone. Moreover, he and his band played so quietly that when bassist Rick Haynes chimed in on the refrains to Sundown and Sweet Guinevere, you could hear him even though didn’t have a microphone.

But don’t confuse that lack of volume with a lack power. Lightfoot’s voice may not have thundered, but he could still evoke a range of emotions, from the measured regret of A Painter Passing Through to the romantic warmth of Beautiful. And when he sang If You Could Read My Mind, he brought a depth and maturity to that familiar melody that made it seem as rich and complex as a vintage red wine.

As expected, the 28-song set list touched on all of Lightfoot’s major hits, including The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, Rainy Day People and Cotton Jenny. But there were a number of tunes that acknowledged the Toronto crowd, such as Couchiching, which celebrates his hometown of Orillia, Ont., and the avian mating song Ringneck Loon.

“When I do this down in the States, they don’t know what I’m talking about,” he said, laughing. “A loonie? What’s that?”

Lightfoot didn’t talk much, and when he did, his patter didn’t always connect. He prefaced Baby Step Back by remarking that “This song always reminds me of Mose Allison,” and seemed a bit disappointed that few in the crowd knew who Allison was. But his delivery of the song – sly, bluesy, full of sass and wit – was an education in itself, and hopefully might lead a few listeners in Allison’s direction.

Or not. Lightfoot wasn’t there to educate, but to entertain and engage, and he seems fine with that. Perhaps that’s why he closed the show with a valedictory rendition of In My Fashion, which concludes with the lines, “I will be remembered/In my fashion, in my way.” Who could ask for anything more?

Gordon Lightfoot performs again at Massey Hall on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.
"I'll see you all next Saturday..."
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