Gordon Lightfoot, 82, thrilled to be reopening Toronto’s Massey Hall

By Nick Krewen

Special to the Star

Well, we almost had a Massey Hall reopening without a Gordon Lightfoot concert.

Reached at home by phone on Monday, Lightfoot admits that  even though his Nov 25-27 dates to welcome patrons back to the Grand Ole Lady following her $135 million facelift have been on sale for months, he wasn’t sure he was going to be able to honour his commitment.

The culprit?  A compound fracture of his wrist.

 “I’m not sure I was going to be able to make it up until two-and-a-half weeks ago,” said Lightfoot, who turns 83 November 17. “I was to make a decision by the 20th of October whether I was going to postpone or cancel a date. We decided, ‘can I do an hour?’ Well, yes, I can do an hour.  I could probably do 65-to-70 minutes.”

He suffered the injury after a fall in his home and said that even though he’s been meticulously practicing, the legendary songwriter of such immortal classics as “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Sundown” and “The Canadian Railroad Trilogy” says the incident has impacted his guitar performance.

“It’ll be a good show, but my playing – I’ve had to change my playing style, a lot – all this finger-style playing that I do,” he states. “I’m working on that.  I’ve tried acupuncture a couple of times, but really the physio that I do is better. I’m working with two trainers.  I do it about three-to-four times a week. I’ve been doing that for the last five or six weeks now and I’m really getting ready.”

 It’s also forcing him to make decisions about song selection.

 “There are certain tunes that are easier to master than others on the guitar, ” he admits. “So, what I’m doing now  is sorting that out to decide what my set list is going to look like. “

 And while the 13-time Juno Award winner says his health is “good,” the setback is also forcing him to preserve some of his on-stage stamina.

So, for the first time in a long time, a Gordon Lightfoot Massey Hall concert will feature opening acts.

“I’ve been through this before,” he notes. “I’ve worked with several opening acts in the past when I was doing two shows a day.  We’ll be doing the cream of the crop of my material and the opening artist will be Tom Rush for the two nights and the Good Brothers for the last night.  It’s going to be a lot of fun – Tom Rush is a great artist – I’ve known him all my life and of course, The Good Brothers.

“They’ve (The Goods) been measuring me and I’ve been measuring them after all these years, ” he laughs.

He envisions his return to Massey as “the carrot on the stick,” the venue where he’s entertained more than 165 audiences and will rack that number up to 168 by the end of November 27. And he’s getting himself into tip-top shape to deliver. 

“I exercise. I try to eat properly. I try and practice. I walk a lot – really a lot – I probably walk two-and-a-half km a day,” says Lightfoot. “I’ve been really getting ready.”

Although, serendiptiously, Lightfoot was the last artist to perform in public at Massey, pre-restoration,  he has been back at least once to see the place while it was under construction: it was briefly re-opened in June to allow the remaining members of the Tragically Hip to perform with Feist as part of the 50th Anniversary Juno Award celebrations.

“I was in there with The Tragically Hip and I swear, you could smell the cement drying,” Lightfoot recalls. “A visual shell had been formed inside.  We had laid down a whole floor of carpets for the Tragically Hip, but up on the stage, the area was still being braced by steel girders. They hadn’t even worked in that area yet.  That was the last time I was in there.”

Like everyone else, Lightfoot has seen artist renderings of what the finished venue will look like on the Internet, and says he can’t wait to see the result.

“I won’t go in there until we load in there until the day before we start.”

In fact, he’s so excited about Massey that Lightfoot promises he would have been in the building regardless of whether he was performing.

“I used to say, I don’t have to necessarily open the doors,” Lightfoot states. “If they want me to do it, I will.  I will be there probably anyway, so I might as well play.  But even if I had been infirm and not been able to play, I would have been there, you know?” 

It’s obvious that a guy who has entertained more than 375,000 people over six decades of Massey appearances has more than a few stories to share, but he remembers one in particular that occurred when he was about to perform his song “Ringneck Loon” from his Daniel Lanois-produced 1998 album A Painter Passing Through. 

“I told the audience I was going to sing a song about a loon that had a rendezvous with another loon –  where a solid greeting sounds like a mating call, and then somebody in the audience gave a perfect loon impression,” he laughs. ” I’ll never forget that. The audience loved it too.  Sounded like you were in Muskoka.”

Massey Hall is special to him in other ways, too. 

“To be able to put the show on for the hometown crowd, it really is like being part of a team, you know, where we can relate to the baseball team or the hockey team or the basketball team or our CFL team. It’s a place where relatives could meet and get together. And it was like a homecoming. We always tried to be so prepared and we knew what to play.  My band would really be getting into it.”

Come November 25, Lightfoot will be joined by his loyal bandmates – drummer Barry Keane, bass player Rick Haynes (with the troubadour since 1968), keyboardist Mike Heffernan and guitarist Carter Lancaster – but says he won’t vary from any of his pre-show routines.

“We have a catered meal, which is pretty good,” he explains. “It hits about 5:30 p.m. Everything before that is getting the intonation correct.  My orchestra (his band) has to be at almost 100% perfect pitch.  I can spend an hour or two every day just thinking about that in my end. 

“I’ve also got three guitars to tune . We don’t have a tuning personality. I tune my own instruments – and my ears are not as good as some of theirs and it takes me a bit longer.  But most of the time is spent getting the intonation just bang, right-on, and the rest of it will look after itself.”

And although he’s curious about how the main hall is going to look from his stage vantage point, Lightfoot is confident about one aspect of Massey Hall that is going to be, to quote one of his songs, “Beautiful.”

“I know it’s going to sound great,” he insists. “I already know that. But it’s going to be a thrill. I really enjoy that kind of challenge and I will enjoy being out there again a great deal.”