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Back in 1991, Gordon Lightfoot told a local interviewer that "nobody really needed another Gordon Lightfoot record." It didn't turn out that way, of course. Lightfoot recorded three more albums after that statement, the last of which, Harmony, came out in 2004.

But when the venerable Canadian folk legend hits the Massey Hall stage this week it won't be to push his latest record, because there isn't one. While the now 70-year-old folksinger-songwriter admits that he "still picks around with the odd tune … I'm not seriously considering putting out another record," he insists. Lightfoot today is more interested in performing than he is in recording.

When Lightfoot steps on the Massey Hall stage, it will be a special event. But then, Lightfoot at Massey Hall has always been a special event. By his own reckoning, the series goes back at least 40 years. What's interesting is that these four shows are part of a much more extensive tour that has been moving through Canada and the United States for several months.

Entering his eighth decade, and six years after a serious and complex abdominal aneurysm nearly ended his life, Lightfoot today seems to be touring as hard as he ever has (these four shows are part of a much more extensive tour through Canada and the United States) and revelling in the response he's been receiving.

"Oh yeah, it's been great," he notes, in a quiet voice that seems far removed from the rich baritone of years passed. "We're doing great shows. We've worked on a lot of things, things I should have been working on when I was in the studio, like intonation of the instruments and tempos that we've now got nailed down and locked into place. And even our general playing ability and the sequencing of the material. We rehearse once a week when we're in town, usually for two or three hours, usually at my house on a Friday afternoon, and we keep everything sharp. All the guys are into it. We know we could have health issues, and that nobody's getting any younger, but we're working hard at it all the same."

It seems odd that a musician of Lightfoot's stature and experience would still be developing his craft, but he claims this is indeed so. "I absolutely am still learning," he insists. "It's better than it was. I can remember times in the past when it was quite a bit below par, I might say. There's a lot there that can be found that can really be improved upon."

And while it might seem like Lightfoot's audience would be one that would age with him, in fact, his live audience today crosses the generations. "We got 'em right from the teenagers through to the seniors," he notes.

"It's just like the circus, people of all ages will come."

Age, and perhaps his brush with death, seem to have created in Lightfoot a deeper sense of humility.

These days, no article or television report seems to omit words such as "icon" or "legend" when mentioning him. Indeed, he is now even listed in our province's history texts. On page 241 of Canada: Continuity and Change, used widely across Ontario in the Grade 10 curriculum, there is, right across from a brief profile on Tommy Douglas, a small section on the troubadour, profiling him and noting his status as an Officer (he's now been promoted to Companion) of the Order of Canada.

When Lightfoot is shown this text, he is both amused and surprised by his inclusion. "There we are," he says, beaming. "I'm pleased. I hope that I can live up to that honour."

Perhaps it is because he grew to fame at a time (the mid-sixties) when music was becoming a driving force in popular culture. Perhaps it is because he has been so proudly, staunchly and uniquely Canadian. Or perhaps it is merely the fact that throughout his 40-plus years as Canada's most prized and accomplished singer-songwriter, he has never really been far from the stage or the recording studio. For all these reasons, the term icon certainly seems acceptable. After all, Canada Post even issued a stamp of the guy.

While he is proud of all he has done, the term doesn't necessarily sit well with him. "What people don't really understand is that we do this for a living. We do this to buy the groceries, and that's a perfectly legitimate reason for doing it.

"Sometimes I wonder why I'm being called an icon, because I really don't think of myself that way. I'm a professional musician and I work with very professional people. It's how we get through life."

Gordon Lightfoot performs at Toronto's Massey Hall from Wednesday through Saturday.

Special to The Globe and Mail


The fact that Gordon Lightfoot was one of the few performers to successfully bridge the gap between the folk and singer-songwriter eras was a large part his success. A short list of some of his most noteworthy and accomplished numbers.

The Folksinger

Early Morning Rain: Although originally better known as a hit for Ian and Sylvia and for Peter, Paul and Mary, it marked the first of Lightfoot's songwriting successes. Gentle and organic, its picaresque theme played to the heart of the folk movement.

For Lovin' Me: Another number first better known when performed by others, it marked a kind of transitional era in Lightfoot's songwriting. Lightfoot was always very much aware of the Beatles and the British Invasion (he actually lived in England for a short time in the early sixties) and this standard coyly mixes traditional folk structures with Lightfoot's own brand of nascent pop.

Ribbon of Darkness: While it didn't seem that way at the time, this was a critical tune for Lightfoot, as it introduced the historical and geographical element to his songwriting, and also blended in some country elements. Consider this a forerunner to Canadian Railroad Trilogy and, eventually, Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald and Black Day in July.

The Singer/Songwriter

If You Could Read My Mind: His breakthrough top-40 hit and the song that finally allowed him to break out in the U.S. and beyond. It is still his best-remembered tune.

Beautiful: Widely covered and another top-40 hit, arguably his most beautifully rendered melody.

Sundown: Evidence that Gordon could rock, if the mood struck.

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