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Gordon Lightfoot and Bruce Springsteen are still considered gods by many.

Who's the boss?

By Morley Walker, taken from Winnipeg Free Press
Arts and Entertainmnent Reporter 

Neither of them is much to look at anymore. Neither, to be honest, is at the top of his game. 

Yet in their day, Gordon Lightfoot and Bruce Springsteen strode like gods on the stage of popular music. To many they are gods still. 

In a coincidence that may or may not mean anything, both are headlining weekend concerts that Winnipeggers of a rapidly advancing age have been anticipating for months. Lightfoot, the ultimate Canadian troubadour, has a sold-out show tomorrow night at the Pantages Playhouse, his first here since 1993. Springsteen, the quintessential American rocker who has reunited with his fabled E Street Band, is performing Saturday night at the Fargodome in Fargo, N.D. It is the closest a Springsteen tour has ever been to these parts. 

Talking about these two icons in the same breath might be stretching journalistic licence. But both, of course, have been hugely influential popular artists. Both are on the comeback trail after years of relative decline. 

More to the point, both can be seen as symbols of their respective countries - Lightfoot the gentle outdoorsman, Springsteen the urban beat poet. 

The fact that there will as many Canadians in the 20,000-plus-seat Fargodome to hear the Boss than there will be to see Lightfoot in the 1,500-seat Playhouse might also say something about our national soul, if not our marketing clout. 

Lightfoot is the elder statesman of the two. He turns 61 on Nov. 17 and has been a respected folkie for 35 years, ever since Peter Paul and Mary recorded his 1965 classic Early Mornin' Rain. 

For the next decade, the onetime boy soprano from Orillia, Ont., turned out a stream of wonderful songs notable for their impeccable craftsmanship and melodic beauty - historical epics like The Canadian Railroad Trilogy and Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, bittersweet ballads like If You Could Read My Mind and For Lovin' Me. 

"Until American chauvinism takes a back seat to common sense," Buffalo News critic Jim Santella wrote in 1998, "no one is going to believe that Lightfoot is one of the best lyricists to pen a verse since the heyday of Oscar Hammerstein II and Lorenz Hart." 

If Lightfoot is the musical version of Pierre Berton, Springsteen is rock's answer to John Steinbeck. The Boss's 1996 album, The Ghost of Tom Joad, tips a self-conscious hat to the American dustbowl novelist's masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath. 

Springsteen's best work, from Darkness on the Edge of Town to Glory Days, has located the dignity in the downside of the American dream. 

"I think of Springsteen as the inheritor of Bob Dylan after he plugged in," says Winnipeg pop music historian John Einarson. "You wouldn't here him use the word verdant, but certainly Lightfoot would. He's like the early Dylan, the acoustic Dylan." 

Winnipeg folk music expert Tony Dalmyn says the two performers share one quality: their identification with heartland values in their respective countries. 

"Lightfoot tried to tap into urban angst in the late '60s with Black Day in July but he never achieved that gritty urban sensibility that the Boss did," Dalmyn says. "He is a more romantic, mellow kind of writer." 

Bruce, who turned 50 on Sept. 23, was the epitome of arena rockers throughout the '80s but by the early '90s seemed to lose his way. 

"I was real good at music," he has said in retrospect, "and real bad at everything else." 

His signature song, Born in the U.S.A., became identified with Reagan-era jingoism when it was clearly a critique of that very notion. 

He became too famous for his own good, the victim of the American star-making machinery. In 1992, Entertainment Weekly dissed him in a cover story. 

"Springsteen, cocooned with his family, may never shake the world the way he used to," the influential mag hissed. 

"For the first time in his career, he sounds like a bystander." 

Lightfoot, meanwhile, has been a bystander since the '80s. Beset by his own demons and a victim of changing fashion, he has lived off his own glory days as a performer and a songwriter. 

In some ways, he peaked too early, before Canadian music found its footing. Bruce Cockburn, Stan Rogers and Jim Keelaghan have all benefited from the ground Lightfoot ploughed. His songs have been recorded by everyone from Bob Dylan to Barbra Streisand. 

Well, Lightfoot has fought back, even though his voice has lost its warmth and deeper colours - "An old man's voice, worn and frail and squeezed out," Globe & Mail critic Robert Everett-Green said in a review of his 1998 album A Painter Passing Through. 

His record company has honoured him with a four-CD set. Dance music trio Stars on 54 covered If You Could Read My Mind. And last spring, he received a kind of benediction from the arbiters of Canadian cool, MuchMusic, with a tribute concert and interview session. 

Springsteen, meanwhile, is also on the comeback trail. His E Street reunion has been one of the hottest rock events in recent years. Last August, when he announced he was doing 15 shows at an arena in his native New Jersey, all 300,000 seats sold out the day they went on sale. 

But, interestingly, his Fargo date is not yet a sell-out. About 15,000 seats had been sold by earlier this week. Ten per cent of those have been sold via phone orders to Canadians, a Fargodome spokesman says. 

"Springsteen has done more than simply stir us once again with his music," the Los Angeles Times said earlier this month in a review of his first show in L.A. since 1988. 

"He showed why he is such a major figure in the history of rock." 

In many ways Gord and Bruce are as different as night and day. But they still command respect and a loyalty from their audiences that today's pop acts still dream of achieving. 

This weekend they deserve the same greeting. 

"Welcome back, boys. We never really noticed you were gone." 

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