Gordon Lightfoot at the Saban Theatre:

Down and Out in Beverly Hills - September 27, 2014

By Ross Altman

Gordon LightfootI got taken by a creative con artist at Gordon Lightfoot’s concert last night at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills—taken for my extra ticket so graciously offered by theatre publicity manager Luanne Nast. In exchange for my FolkWorks Preview of the concert (Gordon Lightfoot: A True Night Upon the Road) she gave me a press pass + 1, which it turned out I didn’t need. When I got to the theatre, before going to the box office window I was approached by a down-at-the-heels slight-looking bearded man-on-the-street straight out of an O. Henry story who, of course, “had a certain charm about him.”

He smiled at me and started singing If You Could Read My Mind and asked me if I had an extra ticket. He looked like someone who couldn’t afford to pay for one, and I thought in an instant maybe here is an opportunity to do a random act of kindness, a mitzvah just in time for Rosh Hashanah. He read my mind perfectly—an easy mark—and I said, “Wait a minute, I just might.” After a recent disappointment with a promised press pass that did not materialize I never count my press passes until I hold them in my hand. When I got to the window there they were as promised—and an aisle seat at that just as I had requested so my guest would be able to take an unscheduled restroom break without disturbing the entire row: Orchestra, Row DD (fourth row from the stage) seats 113 and 114—$125 face value each (concealed by a big fat “O” (for O Henry?) where the price would have been).

With the tickets in my hand I slipped out the front door and gave him #114. Then when I noticed he wasn’t heading toward the front door with me but continuing to hang out on the street looking around as if he hoped to find a customer to scalp the ticket to I got suspicious. I said, “I’m giving you the ticket so you can see the concert—not sell the ticket. If you’re going to sell it I want it back.” “Oh no,” he assured me, “I’m going in in a minute.” He sounded convincing—they always do—and I turned around to enter the theatre.

When I found my seat I realized I had given him the aisle ticket. But there was no one else in the row so I moved down a couple of seats to give myself some extra room to take notes, thinking I might review the concert even though I had already fulfilled my end of the bargain with the preview. I kept waiting for the tramp on the street to sit down next to me, but he never appeared. Instead, another gentleman sat down in seat #114. I would have to wait until intermission to ask how much he had paid Slinky for his ticket.

In the meantime there was a concert to see, and as soon as Lightfoot’s band took the stage my attention was brought back to the moment. After they set up behind their keyboards (Mike Heffernan), bass guitar (Rick Haynes), drums (Barry Keane) and lead guitar (Carter Lancaster), the thinnest man I ever saw outside of a photograph from Auschwitz walked onto the stage carrying the same old well-played Gibson Hummingbird12-string guitar that defined the folk sound of the 1960s. What a beautiful sight to behold. With a twinkle in his eye Gordon Lightfoot approached the microphone and suddenly we were transported out of Beverly Hills in 2014 and placed gently back in time to King Gordon’s Court with an antique ballad he wrote called Sweet Guinevere. Utterly magical it made me realize that Lightfoot doesn’t just write about the world we live in—in such songs as The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald which he also did in the first set—he creates a fictional universe as fully alive as Sir Walter Scott’s—filled with characters like Don Quixote, Minstrels of the Dawn, ghosts from a wishing well, and Painters Passing Through—an amazing parade of archaic but timeless figures from his fertile imagination—not far removed from the Beverly Hills hobo who accosted me outside the theatre as if he had walked out of one of Lightfoot’s own songs—perhaps Early Morning Rain—“with a dollar in my hand,” since he told me he had only two dollars on him.

The almost mystical effect of this visually kaleidoscopic world is reinforced by the wonderful stagecraft behind the band—floor-to-ceiling see-through velvet triangles that change colors with every song—so you see a non-toxic acid trip of hues ranging from deep green to dark red to Sundown oranges and yellows with pink and blue shadows in between. A Gordon Lightfoot concert is thus a feast for the eye as well as the ear. Each song is a journey through light and shadow, sound and silence.

Lightfoot uses two main instruments—the Gibson 12-string which he strums with a flat pick mostly as a rhythm guitar, and his great vintage Martin D-28 which he fingerpicks so well he is listed in the Wikipedia roster of finger-style guitarists on the same page with Merle Travis, Doc Watson, and Lindsey Buckingham. He is one of the best guitarists in folk music, and so dedicated to the sound of the instrument he features a lead guitarist in his band to play the parts it took a whole band to play on his 20 recordings going all the way back to 1962. When Red Shea passed away two years ago during his 50th anniversary Carefree Highway Tour, I was worried he would not be able to replace him, but Carter Lancaster has done an outstanding job of recreating his signature lead parts—so that all you need to hear are the first four notes of If You Could Read My Mind to identify the song—as surely as recognizing Beethoven’s 5th Symphony from the first Duh-duh-duh-duh!

The first words out of Lightfoot’s mouth were the perfectly-timed reassurance of Mark Twain that “rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” since his death was actually misreported last year. Considering his lean body shape and weight it’s not a shock; if ever anyone deserved the name of Lightfoot I was looking at him. It still brought down the house—one of many comic asides that kept the audience entertained throughout the evening.

Only two songs into the concert a woman jumped up from the first row and approached the stage—uh oh, I thought—are we going to see Lightfoot’s real death from a deranged fan?—but she had no malevolent purpose in mind; “Lightfoot,” she screamed, and proffered a beautiful gift bag to the beloved troubadour from the Age of Chivalry, which he graciously bent down as if to a queen to accept. He went back to the microphone and—as if it was the most natural thing in the world to have a beautiful woman paying court to him in the midst of a concert—resumed his song.

A notable quality of Lightfoot’s guitar and compositional style is the fact that he tends to write in only one key—it used to be “B” but with the drop in his voice since his near-death experience from a burst abdominal aorta in 2002—recounted in my concert Preview—that basic key has also descended to “A.” Translated to guitar this means that Lightfoot—with one humorous exception—keeps his capo on the second fret throughout and plays virtually every song in either A or (using “D” chords) E throughout. It puts one in mind of Johnny Cash’s great guitarist Luther Perkins of The Tennessee Two reply when asked why he always played his signature “Boom-chika-boom” guitar lick. “Other guitarists keep searching for the right notes,” he said; “I found them.”

The one time in the entire evening Lightfoot moved his capo up one fret to Bb was fodder for a delightful foray into his loyalty to one key. He promised that he’d never move his capo again (so we wouldn’t have to listen to it “screeching all the way up to Sunset Blvd”). He then asked us to commiserate with him that a side effect of moving his capo was that he couldn’t remember the words to his song. And sure enough, after the opening verse he stopped and looked at us like the canary that got eaten by the cat and said he had forgotten the words. He rewound the song back to the beginning, but not before a wonderful audience member shouted out “It’s all right: You’re human, Gord!” And then he did a flawless performance of a song about two one-time Hollywood lovers who are given a second chance from a broken romance—a beautiful love song with a happy ending. He didn’t even try to reposition the capo; that guitar disappeared during intermission and he finished the show with a third guitar that had the capo safely back on the second fret.

Young Gordon LightfootNo guitar tech, no roadie, not even an electronic tuner; the one time he noticed an off-pitch note he held his guitar up to the spotlight and tuned it himself until—as he put it—his own ear was satisfied that it was perfect. Arlo Guthrie doesn’t do that; Joni Mitchell doesn’t do that; nor does Joan Baez; they all have guitar techs that do it for them backstage; Gordon Lightfoot trusts his own hands and his own ears, like an honest old-world craftsman who puts his handmade guarantee on everything he writes, records and performs. He leaves nothing to chance. A concert by Gordon Lightfoot is a life-lesson in good-as-your-word craftsmanship; the polar opposite of the conman I encountered outside the theatre.

I couldn’t contain my curiosity so during the intermission I finally asked the fellow sitting in my aisle seat where he had gotten his ticket and how much he had paid for it. “Did you buy it from a guy wearing a beard in front of the theatre?” I asked. “Why yes,” he replied. “How did you know?” “I gave it to him,” I said—“for free.” “Do you mind if I ask you how much you paid for it?” I continued. “$40,” he replied; “Was that too much?” “Not at all,” I added; these seats are quite a bit more expensive. “Well, I was just having dinner at Benihana’s across the street; I wasn’t planning on going to the concert at all. But I got curious and when I got near the theatre he offered to sell me the ticket.” “It sounds like you got a good deal, though I made him promise that he wouldn’t resell the ticket before I gave it to him. It didn’t cost me anything since I am in the press and got it in exchange for my concert preview. Now I may write a review just to tell this story.” I wasn’t terribly disappointed in the conman, though; I mean how many grifters think, “Maybe I can pick up a little dough on the fly at a Gordon Lightfoot concert”—that doesn’t sound like page one in the LA Grifter’s Handbook. So really it was a win-win; the guy next to me got a discounted Orchestra aisle seat to the concert; the guy out in front got a couple of decent meals for the day, and maybe tomorrow if he stays out of Beverly Hills; and I got an unexpected story and review for FolkWorks. The only downside was the theatre itself; I should have just turned back the ticket I no longer needed—which is what I will do should the same situation arise in the future. So I apologize to Luanne Nast and the Saban Theatre for contributing to this scofflaw’s taking advantage of them.

Did I mention that O Henry was the pen name of William Sidney Porter, a convicted embezzler, as well as a great short story writer? Perhaps there is a bit of that larcenous character in me as well—though not a whit of his genius—since at some level I knew what I was doing was wrong even as I handed over the ticket. The false pride I felt in doing what I told myself was a good deed was really misplaced shame at taking the extra ticket under false pretenses. At least I didn’t make any money off it—not even indirectly since I am a free-lance writer in the purest sense—I write for free.

Meanwhile, back at the concert, Gordon Lightfoot was putting on the show of his life—a master class in finger-style guitar and vocal expressiveness that belied the technical limitations brought upon him by the two-year painstaking rehabilitation he had undergone from his abdominal surgery and six weeks in a coma back in 2002 and ‘03. For anyone serious about playing finger-style guitar this was the only place to be on Saturday night. Lightfoot has an emotional connection to his devoted audience that is unlike any I have witnessed in more than ten years of reviewing live shows. It’s like watching a loving couple who have been married for fifty years complete each other’s sentences and take care of each other or two trapeze artists whose lives depend upon each other reach out just in time to grab the other’s hand. Whenever the now 76-year-old Lightfoot expressed any self-doubt about a choice of song or an album title (he thought Waiting For You was a terrible title) or strained reaching for a high note he was met with the immediate reassurance of someone in the audience to let him know how much we loved him. It was—in the title of his own great song—Beautiful.

He knows which are the songs the audience most wants to hear—and with the exception of Early Morning Rain—did them all—from Ribbon of Darkness and the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald in the first half to If You Could Read My Mind and Canadian Railroad Trilogy in the second. He had a lot of fun when he came back after intermission with the fact that he had changed costumes—putting on his trademark French magenta waistcoat and white leather boots. He liked to “dress more conservatively in the first half,” he said, then promised “there will be no wardrobe malfunctions” in the second. After a long pause to let us absorb this delightful reference to some of the more infamous “wardrobe malfunctions” of recent entertainment history it brought down the house.

I certainly did not expect a Gordon Lightfoot concert to be a comic as well as musical masterpiece. But it was. After telling us that he and his band were “all from Toronto” he added that, unlike the mayor, “none of us smokes crack cocaine.” When he introduced the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald he recounted that only recently was the real cause of the wreck discovered with certainty—a shipboard not a wardrobe malfunction. And he slyly noted that his own song got it wrong, since he based it on newspaper accounts at the time of the shipwreck in 1975—“And I put it in the very first line of the song!” he said in exasperation. But like a true artist, he didn’t change the song—which is a work of art based on history—and abides by different rules than a documentary. “When legend becomes fact, print the legend,” is the artistic credo articulated in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance—and serves Lightfoot’s song as well, which is the primary reason this shipwreck has become a part of collective memory.

Many great artists receive a standing ovation at the end of their concerts; Lightfoot got a standing ovation as soon as the first few notes of his folk epic Canadian Railroad Trilogy rang out through this lovely old theatre—Beverly Hills’ “Temple of the Performing Arts,” as they proudly declare on the marquee. The end of the last song of a two-hour concert brought the audience to their feet again—and the star and his band took their well-deserved bows before exiting stage left. Our thunderous applause brought them back for an encore, but what would it be? Requests started to rain down on the stage and Lightfoot picked up on the last one I could hear—Rainy Day People. With a grateful smile he was happy to oblige.

On the way out to the parking garage someone in passing asked me what I thought of the concert. I leaned over and gave him my thumbnail review, “It doesn’t get any better; life doesn’t get any better; it was just beautiful—Beautiful with a capital ‘B’.” We nodded in agreement.

If you could read my mind, Mr. Con Man, thank you for this story. And thank you, Luanne Nast, for 2 great tickets to a great show—not good, not second-rate, but great.

Ross Altman hosts Long Beach’s Found Theatre Celebration of the Dylan Thomas Centennial; Sunday evening October 26, 2014 from 7:00 to 10:00pm at the Found Theatre, 599 Long Beach Blvd (at 6th St); for reservations and/or to sign up in advance to perform call director Virginia DeMoss at 562-433-3363 ; a participatory event for lovers of Dylan Thomas’ poems—with a little extra thrown in for lovers of the other Dylan’s songs (who once said, “I did more for Dylan Thomas than he ever did for me”); read a poem/sing a song; celebrate the Welsh Bard and America’s “Original Vagabond” in a memorable evening of poetry and song; performers free and open to the public. N.B. Dylan Thomas was born in Swansea, Wales October 27, 1914, which adjusted for the 8-hour time differential coincides exactly with his Centennial we will celebrate on the 26th. Come gather round people wherever you roam and celebrate two great poets and singers of song; a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rage, rage against the dying of the light. Don’t you dare miss it!

Ross Altman may be reached at greygoosemusic@aol.com