I took a tour of Massey Hall late last month, led by Deane Cameron, the president and CEO of the place. When told about some of the Douglas fir that frames the building, I jokingly compared the wood, which has been there since the beginning, to Gordon Lightfoot. Cameron laughed, before quickly cautioning, “Careful, he’s our boss.”
Humble submission and respect, then. You can think of Lightfoot, 79, as Massey Hall’s boss because of his history and standing with the venue. As such, the folk-rock icon was the obvious choice to close down the 124-year-old venue with three final concerts before it shuts its doors for two years of heavy renovation. He’s played the room some 165 times; if the walls could talk, they would probably need to shut up and listen to Lightfoot sing. Which is exactly what a sold-out audience did on a Canada Day evening, the finale of his trio of shows.
To be honest, Lighfoot doesn’t sing so well any longer; he hasn’t since an abdominal aneurysm wrecked him bad and nearly killed him in 2002, leaving him weakened and his diaphragm unable to carry notes of any depth or for any distance.
All is apparent on the country’s 151st birthday at Massey Hall, where a gaunt man in a burgundy velvet jacket addresses a standing ovation with a dose of self-deprecation: “I am Gordon Lightfoot, and the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
He begins what might be his final Massey concert with Now and Then, a song about things coming to an end. You say the song is about a personal relationship; I’ll say a relationship is exactly what audiences have with Lightfoot. On stage, he counts the song in for his four-man band and begins to sing: “I think this time you’ve said enough to make me want to leave this place / Still I keep coming back for more of the same, to fan the dying flame…”
The mellow lamenter does 26 songs in all, split into two sets. He sings of a big lake that never gives up her dead; he broods melodically about human frailty. On a hit song about romantic paranoia, the sure-footed singer-songwriter rhymes “satin dress” with “what ya don’t confess.” Carefree Highway gets a shortened rendition. He changes into a blue velvet jacket during the concert’s intermission. And he sings Rainy Day People and Early Morning Rain on one of the hottest days of the year.
Between songs, he looks around the room. “The hall still stands,” says the man whose own demise, remember, was greatly exaggerated. “We wondered, but the hall still stands.”
Lightfoot had started the night with a song about a crazy game played out to the end. “Let us just pretend a while,” he suggested, “think about the good things now and then.” He ends it with the countrified Cold on the Shoulder: “You know that we get a little older every day.”
His band leaves him on stage, alone, for a wave goodbye. Lightfoot doesn’t so much walk off as bleed into the fabric of the building. The realization then hits: Lightfoot, for his troubadourial transmissions and cultural resonance, is indeed a boss, of the best, quietly stoic kind. And, yes, he still stands.