by Matt Koelling
Legendary Canadian troubadour Gordon Lightfoot has been making waves as a musician, singer, and songwriter across genres (folk, country, folk-rock, pop, soft-rock) since the sixties. In this Summer prior to his upcoming 80th birthday in the Fall, a man who authored several iconic seafaring songs returned to the Jersey shoreline, visiting the 90-year-old Ocean City Music Pier for the first time.
To put things in perspective, Gordon Lightfoot’s last performance around here came late last century, at a since-shuttered Atlantic City casino owned by the current President of the United States and his then-wife Ivana. Lightfoot, whose raconteur abilities are not limited to his songbook, recalled the couple visiting his dressing room that night after the show. Not much more was said on the subject, beyond audible bemusement among the Music Pier audience, but Lightfoot’s pausing, arched-eyebrow scan from the stage had an “if you could read my mind” look to it.
The capacity crowd, anticipating the visit eagerly enough that the show sold out two months in advance, was here to hear all the old tales and tunes it could get. Lightfoot came equipped with plenty of both, over the course of a two-hour career-spanning show. He joked about being “part of the big folk-music revival, which lasted from 1960, all the way to 1963”. Spoke of a near-miss summit with Elvis Presley, who had a hit with Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain” in 1972, which ended with Colonel Tom Parker informing him “Sorry Mr. Lightfoot, Elvis has left the building”. Introduced “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, about the infamous 1975 sinking of an American bulk carrier on Lake Superior, by mentioning that it received two Grammy nominations in 1976, but didn’t win, because “Barry Manilow had a really big year”.
When he wasn’t hitting well-timed comedic anecdotal notes between songs, Lightfoot’s long-time self-described “outfit” more than ably assisted its captain in steering the musical ship. Keyboardist Mike Heffernan, drummer Barry Keane, and bass guitarist Rick Haynes have been key hands in the Lightfoot Band for fifty years. Relative newcomer Carter Lancaster joined on lead guitar in the early part of this decade, after the passing of the ensemble’s original guitarist Terry Clements in 2011.
For those coming out to see Lightfoot today expecting to hear the distinctive baritone from old studio recordings, be forewarned. The vocal range and power have receded and only a reedy husk of a tenor remains. Certain syllables become lyrically truncated, or abandoned altogether. However, the message, along with the messenger, have gained some gravitas in the exchange. To put it simply, Gordon Lightfoot was writing songs well-suited for an old man to sing, long before he became an old man. So when you hear his melodious rasp, singing about “cold diesels built to last”, “whistles blasts”, and “images from the past, of an old schooner flyin’ down a sky that’s overcast”, it is evocative.
Speaking of “old man”, my own, along with date-night companion my mother, was at the Music Pier on Monday night. During the slightly choppier waters early on in the show, my father was feeling (to borrow a Lightfoot title) “Restless”. For a longtime fan less-versed in doing pre-show research online than his son, experienced music-nerd, the vocal depreciation was jarring at first. On one hand, I understand. I recall the shock of seeing another Canadian luminary, Joni Mitchell, in the early nineties pre-internet, not realizing her vocal range had descended from mezzo-soprano, to contralto, to now smoky alto. Or perhaps my father was simply experiencing feelings of his own mortality through Lightfoot vocally. Whatever the case may be, in Seat 21, Row BB, it took some adjustment, aided by dynamite musicianship, to bring tranquility to that particular sea.
The rest of the paying customers seemed less pressed. Well, aside from the woman shouting out “Sundown”, like it was his “Freebird”, from the back after only song three. C’mon, lady, you know he’s gonna get to that one. Just wait for it and I promise, when it comes, it’ll make it that much more fun. When it did, surprisingly early at around the halfway mark, the band and its main man set a course of momentum that they could follow for the duration. Which felt especially welcome after an abbreviated song in an acoustic medley, got shortened not by arrangement but by Lightfoot forgetting the lyric.
“Now that’s another way to shorten a song!”, Lightfoot exclaimed with a self-deprecating wink, followed by an audience guffaw. Then looking back to his band with a knowing nod, declared “here’s a song I won’t forget”, as they launched into his sole #1 Billboard pop hit. The crowd stood to dance for the first time. The near-octogenarian orchestrating this, still spry and wiry, remained upright while singing and playing without break all night.
Battling a cold, he did late in the proceedings take brief respite to grab a handkerchief, while Keane and Haynes had a hi-hat and bass dialogue on “Let It Ride”. When he returned from behind Heffernen’s keyboards after they finished, Lightfoot remarked of his hankie, twisting in the stage wind, “I feel like Pavarotti up here”. That garnered a laugh, then led to him telling the crowd, “I saw Pavarotti perform, in Toronto, at Massey Hall”, because of course he did. And in case you were curious about Gordon Lightfoot’s critical assessment of the legendary tenor’s peformance that evening, “he was brilliant”.
Speaking of brilliance, “the new guy” on lead guitar, Carter Lancaster, was the not-so-secret weapon throughout. Lancaster provided many tasteful flourishes, on electric and acoustic, finger-style or flat-picking, depending on what the song required, managing everything from a slide-like howl on “Sundown”, to an island-lilting ukulele-style sound on “Christian Island”. The loud roars of approval after several extended turns he took, and him getting the loudest cheer during band introductions at set’s end, were well deserved.
During the latter half of the set, Lightfoot remarked, “Ocean City, the journey’s getting a little bit weird, but it’s alright, we’ll get there”. It was tough to tell if that was a comment on this evening, our current cultural climate, the human condition, or possibly all or none of the above. Gordon Lightfoot has lived long enough to know part of being a great storyteller is leaving some things open to interpretation. So rather than investigate online, to see whether they played more oceanic-themed selections than usual for this OCNJ performance, or ended with “Early Morning Rain” and “Rainy Day People” due to the stormy weather outside, I’ll let those little mysteries linger in my imagination.