Thank you, Mr. Lightfoot.
There was a time that I needed Gordon Lightfoot’s music. Something about the words and melodies resonated with me emotionally. I used to play his songs over and over again during a time that I needed them, and they’d always pull me out of whatever was on my mind. The melodies connected with me as I fell asleep to them; the lyrics spoke to me. But that’s what great music does.
So, it was a privilege to hear the great Canadian songwriter and folk rock singer (arguably the country's best ever) take the stage at The Pabst Theater on Wednesday in Milwaukee.
It was fitting that Lightfoot was in Wisconsin in November. If you don’t get that reference, then you don’t remember the words of the iconic Lightfoot song, "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," which stands at the heart of his catalogue: "That good ship and crew was a bone to be chewed, when the gales of November came early. The ship was the pride of the American side, coming back from some mill in Wisconsin." Few songwriters have done better to capture the soul of the Great Lakes region and its people.
It turns out, though, that the "witch of November" is age. There’s something rather insidious about the way that age zeroes in on a person’s greatest gifts. Other than the iconic few, where the lyrics are so well-known that the audience could and did (somewhat) sing along, many of the songs Lightfoot performed on Wednesday were, if we are brutally honest, hard to distinguish from one another anymore.
That’s what happens when it’s tough to discern the lyrics because of the softness of the performance. Lightfoot’s greatness rests in his melodies, sure. But it has really always rested in his writing. His songs tell stories that capture the spirit of a lost ship (and really its people and the places they came from) or they connect on an emotional level about subjects we all can understand (love, loss). Yet, this is also a man who, according to newspapers, was in a coma and learned how to replay guitar after a stroke stole the use of his fingers. And that was almost 10 years ago.
"I’m Gordon Lightfoot, and the rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated," Lightfoot told the packed hall at the Milwaukee concert’s opening (indeed, in 2010, a Canadian radio station reported that he’d died).
You don’t go to see an almost 77-year-old, obviously frail and bone-thin musician, expecting to hear his songs sound like they did in his prime, though. You don’t expect him to hop around like Mick Jagger. In fact, he barely moved from his spot in the center of the stage, although the straggly long hair and multiple guitars did harken to times past. If you really want to marvel at the poetry of the words, there are record albums, CDs and YouTube for that.
No, you go to play homage.
A younger relative I took along pointed out it was more akin to an Irish wake than a concert with the honoree alive in the room. That’s an exaggeration, but it was, indeed, more about honoring the man’s life and work with a few standing ovations and shout-outs ("We love you Gordon!") than anything else. It was about saying thank you.
It was about hearing Gordon Lightfoot just off the shore of Lake Michigan in November (although it’s been a pretty nice November).
It was also about getting the chance to see an influential artist who helped define a genre (artist in every sense of the word; you won’t see this guy saying or doing things to shock) while you still can. There was a purity to his words. It was about hearing the words of songs you grew up with or needed sung live, perhaps for one of the last times, as even Lightfoot has commented that he’s operating on borrowed time. It was about the slow passing of a generation.
Bob Dylan once famously said about Lightfoot’s songs that when he hears them he wishes they would last forever. And the greatness of the catalogue remained hard to deny. Lightfoot also showed flashes of long-ago swagger. "Meet me by the rock pile honey. I’m a lot bolder there," he said at one point.
Dylan was probably talking about songs like the unmistakable "Sundown," which probably had the most audience participation on Wednesday as the big radio hits came out one after the other starting at about the midpoint of the show. "She’s been lookin’ like a queen in a Sailor’s Dream." And there was "Carefree Highway," singing, "Picking up the pieces of my sweet shattered dream, I wonder how the old folks are tonight."
Although that one passed pretty quickly – and Lightfoot acknowledged that some of the songs were shortened – you had to admire his stamina and determination to still sing them live. He strikes me as a man so wedded to his craft that he will never put down the guitar. And of course, there was "If You Could Read My Mind," singing, "If you could read my mind love, what a tale my thoughts could tell. Just like an old time movie, ‘bout a ghost from a wishing well."
Lightfoot played "Fitzgerald" in about the middle of the show to rousing audience appreciation, singing, "The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down…"
The legend on Wednesday, though, was Lightfoot of course, who told the crowd he comes to Milwaukee every two years. Will he be back in another two? Hopefully. If he is, I’m going.
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