Gordon Lightfoot - Dream Street Rose/Shadows/Salute

BGO Records

It seems quite unbelievable that it was some 50 years ago that I first became a huge fan of Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot. I’d initially seen him on a BBC-TV series in 1962, then his name cropped up as the writer of such hits as Early Morning Rain, For Lovin’ Me (Peter, Paul & Mary), Ribbon Of Darkness (Marty Robbins), Steel Rail Blues, Ten Degrees & Getting Colder, The Canadian Railroad Trilogy (George Hamilton IV) plus numerous album tracks by everyone from Johnny Cash to Judy Collins, Harry Belafonte to Eric Clapton.

Though he rose up on the contemporary folk music wave of the mid-1960s, making his name on the strength of Early Morning Rain, he became a huge international performer of the 1970s and continued turning out works of art for the next 40 years, forever changing in keeping with his own maturity. Initially signed to United Artists Records, for whom he recorded five albums in the 1960s, it wasn’t until he joined Warner Bros/Reprise in 1970 that he achieved worldwide success outside of his native Canada. Most remember If You Could Read My Mind?, one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs ever written. Then there’s Sundown, his only number one hit from 1974 and the lesser-known, but equally impressive The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald, an American top ten hit in 1976. Throughout the 1970s Lightfoot released a series of classic albums, several of which gained him gold and platinum discs.

Quality-wise he always had a lovely sense of coolness in his songs, words and music. He didn’t sing about glamorous folks and dream fantasies, he usually spun yarns about plain folks, mainly because they usually have the most interesting stories to tell. It could be argued that Lightfoot’s greatest strength lay in his portrayal and interpretation of events, feelings and moods that belonged to others; but what he created was always completely and unmistakably his own.

This two-CD set contains three of his albums from the early 1980s when, despite still writing incisive songs and producing excellent albums, his recordings fell out of favour with the mass record buying public as he slipped into becoming a comfortable cult hero commanding a sizeable loyal following around the world.

DREAM STREET ROSE from 1980 has remained one of my favourite Lightfoot albums for more than 35 years. Lyrically and musically, it is probably his most consistent effort, exposing a number of elements to his versatility not heard together previously. Sea Of Tranquillity, which opens the album, is a very simple mood song, jaunty and determined. The shanty-styled Ghosts Of Cape Horn and haunting On The High Seas are woven within that simple basic chord framework that characterised all of his simple songs. Simple songs, but the imagery is so rich and Lightfoot’s voice keeps everything in reserve as he boils up his nautical brews … and sends them gushing out of the speakers. There’s just one outside song, Leroy Van Dyke’s 1950s country hit The Auctioneer, which had long been a Lightfoot live staple. For me, it’s the one weak moment on an album full of great ones.

1982’s SHADOWS begins strongly with the ultra-commercial 14 Karat Gold, a song that still sounds today like a long-lost chart-topping gem from the 1970s. It’s pure Lightfoot, though as the album continues you’ll notice him subtly moving away from the acoustic folk-pop of the past into a more polished and mature pop-rock sound. His voice, full of flexible sincerity, is superb creating a great mixture of light and shade. The title song and Thank You For The Promises are typical of his mood of despair here. She’s Not the Same completes an air of resignation, with his talent for writing low-key songs that creep up on you. In contrast Blackberry Wine is a marvellously evocative piece of music with a subtle Status Quo vibe. His spot-on voice, really flawless, but capable of a deliberately set-up roughness to make a point is really impressive on Baby Step Back, which was to be his final American hit.

SALUTE, released in the summer of 1983, found Lightfoot co-producing with legendary West Coast session guitarist Dean Parks, to create a heavier rock-inspired soundscape. Despite this, his vocals are always powerfully out front and the songs, especially Whispers Of The North and Knotty Pine, borrow heavily from the folk tradition. Compared to his previous album, this one is somewhat more celebratory, as if he has stepped out of a dark period of his life into a new beginning. Though when first released I didn’t readily embrace SALUTE, now listening with fresh ears I find it rather infectious and a definite grower.