Singer-songrwriter Gordon Lightfoot, 77, is a Canadian national treasure, but he’s not been seen this side of the Atlantic for decades.
His best-known songs include Early Morning Rain, If I Could Read Your Mind, Sundown and The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, and they have been covered by everyone from Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash to Bob Dylan and Neil Young.
He’s notched up three top 40 hits over here, the biggest being If I Could Read Your Mind, a No 30 in 1971, and also had two top 50 albums, Don Quixote, a No 44 in 1972, and Sundown, a No 45 in 1974.
He performs up to 90 gigs a year, predominantly in the US, but it’s been 30 years since he last toured the UK. That’s about to be rectified with a visit to our shores next month, including a stopover at Newcastle City Hall on Saturday, May 21.
And Lightfoot, in a telephone question-and-answer session, from his home in Toronto, said he was looking forward to returning.
Q: Why has it been more than three decades since your last tour of the UK? I hope we didn’t do anything to offend you?
A: No, I had always hoped I would get back at one point in my life, but the years just went by. I wasn’t getting any younger, and we were receiving all kinds of requests from people to go over.
People were coming over here to Canada, flying over from Britain to see us, so we decided to make the trip.
It’s a much larger tour than we’ve ever done there before. I actually lived in Britain for five months, at the time when the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were hitting the headlines, right through that summer of 1963. I lived at 56 Gloucester Road in London, and I took the tube over to Shepherd’s Bush to do rehearsals for these country-and-western shows I was doing on the BBC.
Q: I’m calling from Newcastle, where you are to perform at the City Hall on Saturday, May 21. The last and only previous time you played that venue was in 1972. Any particular memories of that concert or that UK tour?
A: I can recall a lot of the shows we did that tour. I remember we played Dublin and Belfast, and we would always get to the venue when there was some kind of a political problem going on. It was like we’d arrive there, and there would be some demonstration. You had to go through a guard post to get from Northern Ireland to southern Ireland. I remember doing that late at night, and our promoter, Jimmy Aiken, talking to the guards and explaining what we were doing there at that hour of the night, you know? But on that same tour, I got word that my record had gone to No 1 on the Billboard chart back here in the States. My song Sundown had moved Paul McCartney back to No 2, and I was at No 1.
Q: There are always about a dozen of the same songs you play at every concert, but can we expect some more obscure choices on this tour, perhaps Whispers of the North, Knotty Pine or Biscuit City, all from 1983’s Salute? That’s a great, under-rated album. And how do you condense a 50-year-long songbook into 20-odd songs each night?
A: I’m trying to think about that album, Salute. That’s one of my favourite albums, although why I ever called it Salute I don’t know. I should have called it Whispers of the North. It was produced by Dean Parks, a really talented producer.
We have got about 45 songs we choose from, the kind of tunes that have momentum, you know, and I have to boil that down to 26 or 27 tunes for each show, and I do two hours and five or 10 minutes, with a 20-minute intermission. I try not to go on too long really, and we even condense songs by dropping a verse here and there. A lot of songs we edit, making a medley out of them almost in order to do all the songs the audience wants to hear. There are certain standards that are really well known, such as If I Could Read Your Mind, Sundown, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, Carefree Highway, Early Morning Rain, and they all have to get done, and the other 30 tunes are in rotation around them. There are many permutations and combinations.
I can travel between cities doing nothing but figuring out what to do. I can spend several hours doing that. I’m always thinking about the show I’m going to do that night.
Q: You have a relentless touring schedule for a performer in his seventies. What keeps you on the road?
A: I, like many of my compatriots, just love the work, and I have really terrific back-up. They are all professionals. I have four guys backing me. We play I guess what you call folk-rock. That’s probably the closest term to describe what we do, but all the songs I do have a beat, all the songs we do on stage.
Q: It’s been some years since we have heard any new Lightfoot songs. Has the muse deserted you, or can we expect a welcome musical surprise from you soon?
A: There are always four or five songs hanging around, but I tend to leave songwriting for the young now. We try to make the old songs sound new, songs like Now and Then, off my Cold on the Shoulder album. It’s the only tune in my whole stage repertoire that is in C-shape for a 12-string guitar.
Q: You are one of the most covered songwriters in the history of popular music, and Bob Dylan has often cited you as his favourite singer-songwriter. How do you respond to that?
A: Dylan has always been very kind to me, and he is the king of that realm. That goes without saying.
As I say, he’s been very kind to me through the years, and I don’t know why. We had the same office for a time, and I’ve been listening to him since his very first album. I got to hear that hot off the press. I thought ‘boy, we’ve got something different here’, and it made me think ‘can I do this as well?’. I got the work ethic and I got as close as I could to him, in my own style.
The one song I wish I’d written is Bob’s A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.
Q: Fellow Canadian Neil Young also recorded two of your songs, If I Could Read Your Mind and Early Morning Rain, on his A Letter Home album a couple of years ago. What did you think of them?
A: Oh, yes, I heard those – very good. I have never heard a cover version that I didn’t like. When someone does one of your tunes, it is really encouraging and it makes you want to work a little harder. I love the versions of Early Morning Rain by Peter Paul and Mary and by Ian and Sylvia, and then Elvis did it. He did a really good job, with Charlie McCoy on harmonica. That’s my favourite cover version of them all.
Tickets to see Lightfoot at Newcastle City Hall on Saturday, May 21, cost £47 to £52. For details, call 0191 277 8030 or 0844 338 0000 or go to www.theatreroyal.co.uk/whats-on/gordon-lightfoot or gordonlightfoot.com