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Old 01-23-2020, 07:54 PM   #3
Join Date: May 2000
Posts: 15,623
Default Re: Analysis of Lightfoot career - long read.

The Way I Feel was made in Nashville. The great session veteran Charlie McCoy pumps up the energy on several instruments, and Kenny Buttrey, who drummed on Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding that year and joined Poco a few years later, lends a sexiness that truly lifts “Go-Go Round” — a forlorn young stripper falls in love with a gentleman who doesn’t know she exists, oy vey — and “If You’ve Got It,” in which Lightfoot tries on a Bobby Darin persona. The drums sound as though they may not be mic-ed, audible through bleed alone—very organic and sweet.

Did She Mention My Name? (1968) is Lightfoot’s weirdest and least cohesive record, but I found myself enjoying its disarray, breadth, and utterly zany string arrangements (by John Simon, the famed producer of Janis Joplin and The Band, not the acerbic dead theater critic). I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that the record moves, track by track, through the following tableaux: Paul McCartney sunshine, Andy Williams purple romance, Phil Ochs protest with electric blues guitar and almost patternless drumming, The Monkees, Gordon Lightfoot, and something that can only be described as Jimmy Webb trying to make theme music for The Sterile Cuckoo. That’s side one. Side two has some truly outlandish sounds. Maybe it’s harp feedback on “Boss Man”; whatever is autopanned on “Something Very Special” sounds like a guitar sample fed through swishing bead-curtains. Song endings defy expectations and logic. Major turns minor with a low blast of trombones. Guitars cross-fade into a delicate string composition. A gentle retard, closing chord, and… banjo hoedown!

Relistening after all these years, I found myself unable to dislodge my ill will toward Lightfoot’s vibrato. It doesn’t show up all the time, but when it does, it’s an unwelcome visitor that pops in almost comically, like Gene Wilder’s spasmatic shooting hand in Blazing Saddles. Nor did I find Lightfoot’s corniness less corny than I had remembered, his arrogant sexism less eye-rolling. This is at its barest in the taunting anthem to infidelity, “For Lovin’ Me”: “I won’t forget you when I’m gone/there you go, you’ve cried again/I’ve had a hundred more like you, so don’t be blue / I’ll have a thousand ‘fore I’m through.”

Back Here On Earth (1968) and Sunday Concert (1969) are his fourth and fifth albums. Then came a label change, United Artists to Warner/Reprise. With this change comes the start of purposeful move toward quietly sympathetic production and an artist persona presented steadily and within limits. Lightfoot entered the 1970s without settling into a sound or cracking the top 40, but having compiled an impressive catalog of songs. A simple question: Why is he making these records? Songs earn serious money; big-label records and club touring — good luck. The royalties alone from “Early Morning Rain,” “Ribbon of Darkness,” and “For Lovin’ Me,” all compositions on the first record, point to a pretty easy life of staying home and hauling checks in from the mailbox. The next seven or eight records also yielded a sprinkling of contemporary versions by others, but the cover train only got well underway in the mid-1970s. Since then, the variety of genres in which Lightfoot’s been covered, and the high rank of the acts within them— including bluegrass (The Country Gentlemen, Kentucky Colonels, Tony Rice), folk (The Kingston Trio, Bob Gibson, Judy Collins), easy-listening (Johnny Mathis, Ray Conniff, Andy Williams, Harry Belafonte), country (Glen Campbell, Don Williams, Olivia Newton-John, George Hamilton, Jerry Reed, Johnny Cash), and rock (Ronnie Hawkins, Elvis Presley, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Grateful Dead, Jimmy Buffet) — have been extraordinary.

From this vantage point the 1960s appear to have been an investment phase for Lightfoot. It was worth it: From the albums — some years he released two, every year at least one — others plucked rich fruit. And from the travel he built a loyal, lifelong fan base. Satisfying as fat royalty checks (I imagine) are, they don’t applaud, cry your name tenderly, tell you you’ve changed their life, or give you the mystical lift that you get playing music with others. Every subcategory of labor in the music business tends to bring on dizziness and boredom, except stage performance, which makes you feel like a god. A man who writes passionately about the pleasures of vagabondage is probably not a man content to sit home soberly monitoring his retirement savings. Nor is Lightfoot a cater-to-market sort of writer. He carries his own highly personalized aesthetic, and so needs to make records of his own to reify it. Writing and performing, activities which respectively stress mind and body, make a good yin-yang pair. Considering the formal niceties that abound in his carefully drafted songs, and how many damned songs there are, one infers a mind on overdrive, a man kept at his desk by the fun of manipulating language and the sound of frequencies jibing serendipitously.


Backstage after a radio show 20 or so years back, I plugged David Rawlings for information on Lightfoot, as the two had recently performed on a bill together somewhere. “He was really concerned about being in tune,” David said. “I mean, he was really concerned. Going from player to player, ten minutes before downbeat, then five and then one — ‘Are you in tune, Rick? Are we in tune together?’”

This purported bugbear is confirmed amply by interview transcripts. Here’s Gordon answering a reporter who observed that his concerts seem to be improving and the band enjoying itself more, 35 years in:

“One of the reasons why it sounds better, Valerie, is that we’ve been getting scientifically involved in tuning the instruments, in getting them locked in with the keyboards. And that is something that has gelled just in the last three or four years….It’s a very careful and exacting process. We’re working on it; it’s improving. That’s why we think it sounds better.”

A writer from Rolling Stone reports from a soundcheck:

“He sits down and hunches over his guitars one by one to begin the string-by-string tuning process. [Unlike that notorious five-string-at-a-time tuning process.] It’s slow, painstaking work, and after a half-hour, only Hasse [his wife] is left in the theater with him… ’I have to make sure they’re all in perfect tune,’ Lightfoot says. ‘Perfect… tune.’

From a 2019 Sound And Vision feature:

Q: You’re very meticulous about the time you spend tuning your guitars on show days. How do you know when a guitar sounds right to you?

A: We do tune our own instruments, because I like to make sure the right intonation is on them. If I can be sure I have all of my octaves and my fifths perfectly aligned, then all of the instruments should be in tune. I really have four instruments on the go during every show. I have to make sure all of them are in tune during the day, so I arrive at the venue very early.

It seems no one is able to spend five minutes in a room with Gordon Lightfoot without his lapsing into a panegyric on the wonders of tuning. A half-hour? “Scientifically”? Arrive early? Let’s dive into this insanity. When you’re cursed with perfect pitch, as this man may be, degrees of disharmony or distance from 440 that are imperceptible — or actually pleasing! — to the rest of us can take on the sensations of toothache. For many of these people, the torture never stops, because at least a tiny degree of departure from flawlessly consonant thirds and fifths is built into music.

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