Various Artists’ Beautiful: A Tribute to Gordon Lightfoot 

51boeGmsYKL._SY355_“The way I feel is like a robin
Whose babes have flown to come no more
Like a tall oak tree alone and cryin’
When the birds have flown and the nest is bare”

When Gordon Lightfoot was in hospital a year ago, no one knew just how ill he was. We all started to think about what a treasure we had in this gentle troubador. A group of (mainly) Canadian artists began work on a tribute album which would honour his lifework as a writer and singer of songs, and as a model for a couple of generations of musicians from the Great White North. Beautiful is the resulting labour of love, and it’s a winner from start to finish.

The Cowboy Junkies start things off with a mellow and mysterious version of “The Way I Feel.” Haunting guitar from Michael Timmins and Margo’s spooky vocals “junkifies” Lightfoot’s song while maintaining the melody and feel of the original. Montreal’s most famous Tennessean Jesse Winchester serves up “Sundown” as a funky Memphis stew. Ron Sexsmith chooses a relatively newer tune. His version of “Drifters” is intimate and friendly, a tribute to the longevity of Lightfoot’s muse.

Bruce Cockburn internalizes “Ribbon of Darkness” and creates a virtual paean to depression. Echoey electric guitar, and Bruce’s mumbled lyrics, a touch of mandolin from Colin Linden (the album’s executive producer) produces a song I didn’t even recognize as it slid by on first hearing. Blue Rodeo resurrect an obscure hit from the 60s. “Go Go Round” was on the Top 40 in Canada in 1968, but its subject matter embarrassed Lightfoot and he distanced himself from the tune. It’s always been a favourite of mine, and Blue Rodeo obviously like it too.

Colin Linden reappears with Blackie and the Rodeo Kings for a straight take on “Summer Side of Life.” Tom Wilson sings the verse, Stephen Fearing and Linden sing on the chorus. They all play guitars. The always great Richard Bell adds some “Garth Hudson-esque” organ fillagrees. These guys just get better and better! Connie Kaldor offers a quiet folkie rendition of “If You Could Read My Mind.” I’ve always loved this song’s line about the “old time movie about a ghost from a wishing well.” I’m sure I saw that movie! It’s a potent song, and Kaldor puts a lot of emotion into it.

Terry Tufts does “For Lovin’ Me,” Harry Manx slides through “Bend in the Water,” the Tragically Hip rock out “Black Day in July,” and Murray McLauchlan makes a welcome return to the recording studio with “Home From the Forest.” Each one plays the song in their own style, but Lightfoot’s gift for melody, and his essentially Canadian viewpoint shines through the lyrics. Maria Muldaur’s countrifies “That Same Old Obsession,” with Dobro and acoustic guitar.

Lightfoot’s greatest Canadian song, is the epic “Canadian Railroad Trilogy.” Author Pierre Berton wrote a multi-volume history of the building of the railroad in Canada, and still gives credit to the songsmith for saying it effectively and powerfully in music. James Keelaghan performs the “Trilogy” pretty much as written, with a slight Celtic edge. Quartette (Sylvia Tyson, Cindy Church, Caitlin Hanford & Gwen Swick) lend their gorgeous harmonies to another favourite, “Song For a Winter’s Night.” Beautiful.

The final song is a tribute in and of itself. Aengus Finnan sings his own composition, “Lightfoot,” paying homage to the man himself. It’s a Lightfoot-style song, celebrating the life and journey of its subject. This track doesn’t play well on the review copy, and it’s a shame because what I hear is a fitting acknowledgement of Lightfoot’s leadership.

That’s it, fourteen songs by the man himself, and one heartfelt original. All put together in a snazzy package with handsome artwork from A Man Called Wycraft. A project so big it took two labels to produce it. Kudos to Northern Blues and Borealis. Last week we received notice that Gordon Lightfoot is still not completely recovered, that he was back in hospital for some tests, and maybe more. He says he’s working on new material, until he can record himself…this is a Beautiful way to remember his gift.

(Borealis Records, 2003)


David Kidney

David Kidney was born in the Marine Hospital on Staten Island in the middle of the last century, when the millenium seemed a very long way off. His family soon moved to Canada, because the air was fresher. He has written songs and stories, played guitar, painted, sculpted, and coached soccer and baseball. He edits and publishes the Rylander, the Ry Cooder Quarterly, which has subscribers around the world. He says life in the Great White North is grand. He lives in Dundas in the province of Ontario, with his wife.

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