At Large

Still Playing on the Carefree Highway

Gordon Lightfoot turns 75, still on tour.

By 11.13.13


Happy birthday next week!!!” A man shouted his congratulations to Gordon Lightfoot during his concert at the Shubert Theater in Boston last week. It was the penultimate stop of the Canadian recording legend’s eight month long Carefree Highway tour which took him across North America. The tour marked his 50th anniversary on the road.

The audience member was slightly imprecise, but Lightfoot will turn 75 on November 17. That in of itself is remarkable considering he nearly died in 2002 following an aortic aneurysm. Four years later, Lightfoot suffered a minor stroke during a performance in Michigan. The stroke caused numbness in Lightfoot’s right hand and impeded him and severely impeded his guitar playing.

Then in February 2010, Lightfoot had a Mark Twain moment when a Twitter post reported that he had died and the story went viral. Lightfoot learned of his death while driving back to his office in Toronto following an appointment with his dentist. He called a radio station to tell them he was alive, well, and had a clean set of teeth. Lightfoot took the hoax in stride, noting “all of a sudden, my music is in heavy rotation.”

By 2012, Lightfoot had rebounded. During the 100th Grey Cup in Toronto last November, football fans wanted no part of Justin Bieber’s sound and fury and jeered him despite his status as a native son. But these same fans were enthralled when Lightfoot took to the stage with only a guitar and sang an abbreviated version of “The Canadian Railroad Trilogy.”

This marks the third time I have seen Lightfoot live. The first time was in Ottawa 20 years ago at the National Arts Centre. The second time was here in Boston at The Orpheum in October 2005. If you have never attended a Lightfoot concert then be warned – he always begins on time. If Lightfoot schedules a show for 8:00 p.m. then he will be on the stage at twenty hundred hours, and last week was no exception.

As time has gone on, Lightfoot’s voice has lost much of its strength. His baritone has been replaced by a rasp. Yet the voice is still unmistakably Lightfoot’s. Even if the strength of his voice has been diminished the quality of his songs has not. Lightfoot’s set included such classics as “Minstrel of the Dawn,” “Beautiful,” “Carefree Highway,” “Ribbon of Darkness,” “Sundown,” “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” and “Rainy Day People.” As the show took place three days prior to the 38th anniversary of the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, Lightfoot gave a rousing rendition of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” To this day, Lightfoot remains in contact with the families of the 29 men who died on Lake Superior that November evening.

Lightfoot kept the banter light between songs. When an audience member shouted, “Go Leafs,” Lightfoot acknowledged that while he lives in Toronto he gave assurances that he does not smoke crack cocaine unlike embattled Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.

The only disappointing aspect of the concert came not from Lightfoot, but from the audience. Many of them saw fit to talk during quite loudly during the concert. One middle aged man even talked on his cell phone on several occasions until he was told by an usher to end his conversation. It’s the sort of behavior I would have expected from a younger crowd. I mean how many chances do you get a chance to see a living legend? How many chances do you get to see a master at his craft? People don’t shell out their hard earned money to hear you talk. So turn off your cell phones. Your conversations can wait. All business must cease until his songs have been sung.

Lightfoot will be taking a break from the road for the holidays, but will be back singing his songs in February. If Gordon Lightfoot travels down the Carefree Highway to your town, do not miss him and please be sure to be on time.

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About the Author
Aaron Goldstein writes from Boston, Massachusetts.