Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Meredith Moon performs Oh So Sweet at Celebrating Gordon Lightfoot, a tribute concert to the Canadian musician, in Toronto, on May 23, 2024.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

If one were forced to choose the highlight of the Gordon Lightfoot tribute concert at Toronto’s Massey Hall on Thursday, there would be no wanting for contenders. The late singer-songwriter played the venue on more than 170 occasions, and it is hard to imagine his compositions sounding any better than they did on a night when major and minor chords were struck, familiar melodies hummed and memories celebrated.

Meredith Moon, Lightfoot’s youngest daughter, gave an affecting three-song performance, which included the relatively obscure Oh So Sweet. “This is the song my dad used to tune his guitars to,” she said. Her own Slow Moving Train was a favourite of her father’s, the capacity crowd was told. And on the dueted If You Could Read My Mind with Serena Ryder, the line “Because the ending’s just too hard to take” was just that.

Lightfoot, a painter of a songwriter and a Canadian icon, died on May 1, 2023. He was 84.

Though the all-Canadian evening was often poignant, there were just as many upbeat moments. Burton Cumming’s imitative imagining of Lightfoot singing Rod Stewart’s Maggie May was hilariously uncanny.

The hoedowned Alberta Bound by the Good Brothers and Blue Rodeo was so convincing that I felt the urge to book a train trip to Medicine Hat.

Allison Russell’s intense rendition of Black Day in July, Lightfoot’s response to the Detroit riot of 1967, resonated emotionally. The Grammy winner seemed to be living the song’s protest, not reciting it.

Open this photo in gallery:

Allison Russell performs Black Day in July, Lightfoot’s response to the Detroit riot of 1967.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

The surprise appearance of Rush musicians Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson for a psychedelic take on The Way I Feel with Blue Rodeo was a maple-blooded occasion for the ages.

My personal favourite moment was small and subtle. Blue Rodeo, one of the concert’s two house bands, backed Julian Taylor on Lightfoot’s All I’m After. At times, as Taylor crooned, Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy mouthed lines to himself: “Ain’t it funny, life feels different with each new passing day/ All I need is my reflection in your wild and windswept ways.”

Done off microphone and with a sly smile, this was not performance. It was private joy in plain sight; a salute to a fellow professional’s perfect lyricism; a tribute as meaningful as any.

The concert, filmed for future broadcast on CBC, was divided in two. The first half featured solo presentations and others backed by Lightfoot’s old band, which starred the long-time rhythm section of bassist Richard Haynes and drummer Barry Keane.

Sylvia Tyson, who with Ian Tyson recorded covers of Early Morning Rain and For Lovin’ Me in the 1960s, offered her own At the End of the Day, an elegiac ballad. “When I think of the good times,” she sang, “all the hard times fall away.”

Open this photo in gallery:

The Good Brothers and Blue Rodeo perform Alberta Bound.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Near the end of the first set, Tom Cochrane took on a moody epic, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. It is a classic that had to be done. But if Cochrane drew the short straw, his rendition with Lightfoot’s former sideman was strong and faithful to the original.

After the intermission, Murray McLauchlan spoke about Lightfoot’s lonesome Early Morning Rain. He said past interpreters of the song had often taken liberties with the chords, and he would perform it the way Lightfoot wrote it. This was avenging a slight to a songwriter. McLauchlan’s version managed to be both respectful and inimitable.

The Manitoba troubadour William Prince brought the house down with his cover of the counselling The House You Live In. He added a personal touch by mentioning that he wished he knew the song’s fourth verse when he was younger:

When you’re down in the dumps and not ready to deal

Decide what it is that you need

Is it money or love, is it learning to live

Or is it the mouth you must feed?

Be known as a man who will always be candid

On questions that do not relate

The tempo picked up with the arrival of Blue Rodeo. Guitarist Colin Cripps’s cosmic-cowboy suit alone heightened expectations quickly met by a high-spirited Steel Rail Blues.

The concert was not perfect. Host Damhnait Doyle of CBC radio was committed to breathless platitudes, chipper blather and amateurish segues. She described Lightfoot as a man, a myth and a legend “all rolled into one.” That is not accurate. Unlike Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan – she mentioned both of them – Lightfoot was not part-myth. He was a country boy with a gift for melody and melancholic expression. A humble star, he wrote lore but was not lore.

The night closed with a packed-stage presentation of 1971′s Summer Side of Life, about youthful idealism ruined by the realities of living. The buoyant woe was perfect.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe