Even before Gordon Lightfoot performed at London’s Royal Albert Hall on May 21, 2016, the legendary songwriter admitted to feeling like he was singing “on borrowed time.” Mortality loomed over much of his work throughout the decade. In 2012, he issued All Live, an album that he candidly admitted was intended as a posthumous release. The subject of age, and the wisdom it brings, suffuses Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni’s 2019 documentary If You Could Read My Mind. In the film, an aged Lightfoot reflects on his hard-living, hard-drinking early days, the darkness and anger that dogged him and hurt those closest to him, and the way his immersion in nature in the early 1970s via canoe trips into the Canadian wilderness helped to right his spiritual and creative compass. (Plus, you get his off-the-cuff accolades for his nearby neighbor, Drake.)
On At Royal Albert Hall, a live set that the Lightfoot estate has dubbed the late songwriter’s final album, Lightfoot sounds nothing but unburdened. The 26-song album is presented with no overdubs or fixes, only some audience fades. His discography has always made space for thoughtful interplay, and on these recordings, the band delivers. A sympathetic quartet of longtime collaborators round out his signature 12-string acoustic with Mike Heffernan’s soft rock synth pads, Carter Lancaster’s jazzy passages of electric guitar, and commanding rhythms from bassist Rick Haynes and drummer Barry Keane. Small and unexpected touches dot the set, from the flamenco dashes of “Christian Island” to the spiraling synths of “Shadows.”
Lightfoot’s miles-wide voice plays no small role in his classic material, but settled into a light, agreeable lilt, the focus shifts more to the songs: their emotional tone and stark lyricism. Though he’s often thought of in terms of pillowy soft rock, his pared down range reveals the darkness nestled among even his most pastoral narratives and gentle rockers, to say nothing of the outright menacing ballads, like 1974’s Cathy Smith-inspired “Sundown.” This vocal approach reveals more of the humor and sly wordplay, too: Performed here, that song slides along on a more agreeable current. Like his contemporaries Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, who gathered at Lightfoot’s house in 1975, where Mitchell performed a draw-dropping rendition of “Coyote,” Lightfoot’s voice sometimes cracks and falters, adding a ghostly, sly tone to his visions of about sailor’s dreams and the murky distance between winning and losing.
Outside of a few quick asides to the audience—“Here she comes!” or “That was another way of shortening a song,” after an abrupt stop—Lightfoot lets the songs do the talking. The stories they tell are layered. He opens with one of his finest, “The Watchman’s Gone.” Backed by a steady thump that echoes the Band on a stately march, he sings about the forces that kick would-be dreamers out of existence. “I’ve been on the town/Washing the bullshit down,” he sings with uncharacteristic profanity. These sorts of authority figures don’t show up all that often in his songs, and even when Lightfoot presents himself as one, it’s with a gentle shrug: “If you want to know my secret don’t come running after me/For I am just a painter passing through in history,” he sings on the balmy “A Painter Passing Through,” the title track of his 1998 album. Even when he does play the omniscient narrator, like on “Rainy Day People,” which receives a righteous clap of recognition, Lightfoot seems as baffled as anyone: “Rainy day people all know how it hangs on a piece of mind.”
The natural world plays a central theme in many of these songs, from the sunny travelogue of “Christian Island” to the gale force winds of “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” one of the most affecting performances of this set. “Every time I hear a song of his, it’s like I wish it would last forever,” Dylan once said of Lightfoot. “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” goes on for just under seven minutes in this rendition, but it carries an eternal feeling, like it’s always being sung somewhere, by someone. The very best Lightfoot songs have this quality, like he carved them out of solid wood, the sort of object that’s going to stick around long after its creator is gone.
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