Last year BBC4 ran a series called Singer-Songwriters at the BBC, compilations of…well, what you’d expect really, given the title, but specifically focussing on the early 70s. This was a goldmine for fans of the era and one of the highlights was Canadian legend Gordon Lightfoot performing his signature song (well, one of them anyway), If You Could Read My Mind. The Beeb have gone one better this week and re-broadcast the full concert this was lifted from (originally broadcast in two parts in early 1972) and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen on the telly.
Filmed in front of a small studio audience (due to the technical limitations of the day most of the audience are seated behind the performers) and capturing Lightfoot at the beginning of his international success, but before Sundown catapulted him to superstardom, the concert mainly focuses on his first two albums for Reprise – If You Could Read My Mind (or Sit Down Young Stranger as it was originally titled before the single took off unexpectedly) and the then-forthcoming Summer Side of Life (Gord notes, ‘This album isn’t out yet’ before launching into Summer Side’s opener Ten Degrees and Getting Colder).
It was still a few years before Lightfoot would add a drummer to his live band (and even longer before a keyboardist joined the fray), so this is real folk trio stuff, with just Lightfoot on 6 and 12 string guitars, Rick Haynes on bass (who remains Lightfoot’s bassist to this day) and the late Red Shea on lead guitar. Sadly very little of Shea’s fretwork is captured for the camera, but the sound is very good and his playing is as impeccable as his reputation. Initially there is little conversing with the audience, but Gord gets progressively chattier as the show goes on, revealing an endearing, if unsophisticated sense of humour (for example announcing that Rick’s wife has just had a baby and wanting to be the first to congratulate the new father…shakes Red’s hand. Not exactly comedy gold, but it fits the tone of the whole thing).
For reasons unknown Lightfoot never managed more than a few moderate hits in the UK, but the audience is enthralled and appreciative throughout. Other than IYCRMM (at that time his only UK hit) only Early Morning Rain and For Lovin’ Me (the latter paired with Did She Mention My Name in the medley version I’d always assumed originated in 1975 when it was recorded for Gord’s Gold – shows what I know!) are greeted with ‘recognition applause’, presumably from Peter, Paul and Mary’s versions.
Aside from the cover of Me and Bobby McGee, which I’ve never really warmed to, the set is a winner from start to finish, with highlights for me including Affair on 8th Avenue, Miguel, Nous Vivons Ensemble and epic closer Canadian Railroad Trilogy, still possibly the best Lightfoot song ever. As Lightfoot rarely tours outside of North America these days (and given that he’s now 72 that is unlikely to change at this late stage) it seems unlikely I’ll ever bea bel to cross him off my must-see-live list, but this is a rare treat that goes some small way in making up for that.
If you’re in the UK you can still view on iplayer until (very early) Monday morning here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/
search?q=gordon%20lightfoot; otherwise it has now made it’s way to YouTube (see below) but be quick to be on the safe side, as the Beeb may not allow it to remain there for long...and now all I need to make me even happier is to see the full show they found the Harry Chapin clip from for last year's doco on Elektra Records...
Gordon Lightfoot beginner's guide:
My personal top 5:
Did She Mention My Name? (1968)
Summer Side of Life (1971)
Don Quixote (1972)
Missing from my own collection: Still have four studio albums to get, most notably well-received latter-day effort A Painter Passing Through (1998).
Compilations: The Complete Greatest Hits does what it says on the tin, containing all of his best-known tracks in one place (sadly too many of his best tracks do not also come under the category of ‘best-known’), the two Gord’s Gold releases are a mix of remakes of earlier recordings (generally works well for the first volume, but not so much for the second) and originals, while The United Artists Collection helpfully contains his first four studio albums in their entirety, so is a must-have if you don’t already own them in another form.
Avoid: Gord’s Gold Vol II – the remakes sound like they were recorded underwater, and it’s never been clear why this set of songs needed to be remade in the first place.