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Concert Fri Apr 04 2008

Old Gord’s Records: Lightfoot Plays Waukegan’s Genesee Theater

Gordon Lightfoot review

John Greenfield and Elizabeth Winkowski outside the Genesee Theater

[John Greenfield sent us in this heartfelt review of Gordon Lightfoot's concert in nearby Waukegan.]

I first got interested in Gordon Lightfoot in 2000 when I saw the indie film Parsley Days, about a female bike repair instructor in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The excellent soundtrack includes Julie Doiron's cover of Lightfoot's melancholy "Early Morning Rain," about a womanizer trying to get home to his family. As the speaker stands drunkenly by a runway he laments: "You can't jump a jet plane / Like you can a freight train / So I'd best be on my way / In the early morning rain."

I'm not sure how my girlfriend Elizabeth, born well after Lightfoot's mid-'70s heyday, discovered his adult-contemporary folk-rock. She owns a dozen of his albums on vinyl and they're currently in heavy rotation on her plastic portable phonograph.

But it's easy to understand the appeal of the man behind hits like "Sundown," "If You Could Read My Mind" and the "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." Ruggedly good-looking, the singer-songwriter from Orilla, Ontario, became an icon of north-of-the-border masculinity: tough but sensitive; manly but not macho. His understated, bittersweet lyrics about romance and adventure, set against mellow acoustic backdrops, embody the Canadian ideal sometimes ascribed to Neil Young: strong feelings expressed quietly.

For my 37th birthday in March, Liz gave me a framed copy of a postcard with the Gordon Lightfoot stamp issued by the Canada Post. That Friday we jumped a Metra train up to Waukegan, IL, to catch the troubadour on tour at the recently restored Genesee Theater.

Gordon Lightfoot review

(Illustration by Elizabeth Winkowski)

"Gord," as he calls himself, is now 69 and his audience has grown old with him. As Elizabeth and I entered the ornate, gilded concert hall with its crystal chandeliers, we seemed to be the youngest audience members in a sea of gray-haired "Lightheads." Sitting next to us, Mike and Lisa from Park Ridge said they used to see Lightfoot perform at Chicago's Earl of Old Town back in the late '60s along with local folk luminaries like John Prine, Bonnie Koloc and Steve Goodman. "That was back when intoxication was a sport," Mike said. "Eventually it was clean up or die."

The singer appeared at the Genesee dressed in a white shirt and black vest, still a handsome man but gaunt and frail-looking. His once-golden curls are now steely, straight and slicked-back. He nearly died in 2002 when an abdominal hemorrhage put him in a coma for nearly two months, sidelining him for two years, but he's returned to a rigorous tour schedule. "I feel very fortunate still being able to do this," he said on stage.

As he launched into the two-hour show, Gord's 6- and 12-string acoustic guitar playing was rock-solid, but whether due to age or his recent illness his voice was a wispy shadow of his former rich baritone. His diction had also declined over the years: a case of "Michael McDonald Syndrome." Fortunately, it seemed appropriate to sing many of his ballads and traveling songs with an old man's voice.

Backing him up were Terry Clements on lead guitar, Rick Haynes on bass, drummer Barry Keane and keyboardist Mike Heffernan. Mostly white-haired men, they've all been playing with Lightfoot for about three or four decades. Clements, Haynes and Keane provided nimble accompaniment, but Heffernan's '80s-style keyboards made some of the tunes sound like karaoke tracks.

The band plowed through the catalogue swiftly, with standards like "Cotton Jenny," "Ribbon of Darkness," "Carefree Highway" and "Don Quixote" clocking in at under three minutes. During "Sundown," with typical reserve Lightfoot cautions a rival, "You'd better take care / If I find you've been creeping ‘round my back stair." The singer has implied that the lyric refers to a stormy affair with Cathy Smith, the notorious groupie who gave John Belushi his fatal drug injection.

The moment we'd all been waiting for came when Gord sang his 1976 hit "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," a tribute to the 29 victims of the modern-day tragedy on Lake Superior. Once when Elizabeth and I were camping at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore we attended an outdoor concert of songs about Great Lakes shipwrecks. "Play some Lightfoot!," I hollered and the park ranger complied, solemnly strumming a moving rendition of the ode. Unfortunately, the songwriter's own version at the Genesee seemed perfunctory and rushed.

Instead, the biggest crowd-pleaser of the evening was "Canadian Railroad Trilogy," an ambitious saga that details the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Gord warned us in advance that he might not be able to hit some of the high notes in the soaring third passage. But when the band picked up the tempo in the middle of the song like a locomotive gathering a head of steam, the crowd's excitement was palpable.

After a couple of standing ovations, Lightfoot ended the show with "Old Dan's Records," a good-timey country tune in which the singer exhorts his friends to dance and party to the music of a codger who has passed away. "If old Dan could see us now / I know he'd be so proud." It was a poignant parting shot from a singer who has already cheated death and knows his legacy will live on long after he is gone.

After witnessing that heartfelt performance, I regretted the few snarky comments I had made between songs about Gord's voice. As we exited the theater, Mike from Park Ridge turned to me. "Wait until an artist you like now turns 30 years older."

- By John Greenfield

Gordon Lightfoot plays the Star Plaza Theatre in Merrillville, IN this Saturday, 4/5 at 8pm. Tickets are $40.

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Jennifer Pierce / February 27, 2009 1:01 PM

I'm a little embarrassed to say this, but the cover of Gordon Lightfoot's, Early Morning Rain as heard in Parsley Days is done by me and my friend Andrew Glencross...not actually Julie who is awesome in her own right but can't take credit for this.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

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