While he was changing guitars Wednesday night at the Arlington Theatre, legendary Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot quipped, “One of these days I’ll get with the 21st century.” This led to a bit of feigned shock from the audience, which was perfectly happy to have Lightfoot spend the evening reminding us of his, and arguably many of the audience members’, 20th-century heyday.
When he said this, Lightfoot was actually just referring to the fact that his acoustic guitars used cords to plug in, presumably rather than having some newfangled wireless amplification system. Lightfoot explained, “I like the lead wire guitar cord; it gives a sense of security.”
A further “sense of security” no doubt came from bassist Rick Haynes, who has been playing with Lightfoot since 1969. As it turned out, on the night before the Arlington show the band played at UCLA’s Royce Hall, which was the first venue at which Haynes played with Lightfoot, and this was their first return to play there after all these years.
Lightfoot’s band was more than ably rounded out by guitarist Carter Lancaster, who replaced longtime guitarist Terry Clements after his February death; drummer Barry Keane; and keyboardist Michael Heffernan.
Lightfoot and the band played two sets, giving a healthy sampling of his vast songbook, which ranged chronologically from “Ribbon of Darkness” from his 1966 debut album up through “A Painter Passing Through,” the title track from his 1998 album. There were many milestones from the years in between, including “Canadian Railroad Trilogy;” “If You Could Read My Mind;” “Carefree Highway;” “Sundown;” “Rainy Day People;” “Spanish Moss,” which segued into “Shadows” and seemed to come together particularly well; and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
The latter, the story of the huge ship that sank in Lake Superior on Nov. 10, 1975, would have to be my favorite of Lightfoot’s songs.
This is a prime example of his skill as a narrative songwriter, recounting the tragic events that killed all 29 sailors on board, and closing with “Superior they say never gives up her dead / When the gales of November come early.”
Lightfoot was in good spirits at the Arlington, joking a few times between songs, and responding to calls from the audience of “You are awesome and I love you” and “You are so hot” with “We love the work.” And during “Triangle” I swear he replaced the word “sandbar” to give the lyrics “A tuna fish turned / To a mermaid in bed and said / “there goes another Santa Barb.”“
Lightfoot also provided some short but interesting context for a few of his songs. For example, “Fine As Fine Can Be” was written for his eldest daughter when she was 10 years old, and “Waiting for You” was written after he saw the northern lights. He also noted that his song “Beautiful” “gets done at a lot of weddings,” after which I heard a nearby audience member say that it was played at hers.
Unlike the fellow septuagenarian Paul Simon, who paid a recent visit to Santa Barbara, Lightfoot did not have any new material to promote.
But that’s all right. Although all of the songs that we heard at the concert were written in the 20th century, they certainly still speak to us in the 21st.
Did She Mention My Name
Sea of Tranquility
14 Karat Gold
Never Too Close
A Painter Passing Through
Let It Ride
Spanish Moss / Shadows
The Watchman’s Gone
Ribbon of Darkness
The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
Home from the Forest
Waiting for You
Make Way for the Lady
Fine As Fine Can Be
If You Could Read My Mind
Baby Step Back
Canadian Railroad Trilogy
Rainy Day People
Old Dan’s Records
— Noozhawk contributing writer Jeff Moehlis is a professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.