Tom Granata,
Left Foot Lightfoot
(Wheel's Old, 2010)

Tribute discs are typically a tricky business, especially when the honoree is someone who is well known and whose recordings are readily available. I've just now checked my collection, and I count 11 albums -- or maybe, depending on how you're figuring, 14 -- by Gordon Lightfoot. That covers, if not every single disc, still the range of his career, everything from Lightfoot! (1966) to Harmony (2004). Of them, the one stone-cold masterpiece is surely Back Here on Earth (1968). And since I have your attention, my favorite songs overall are the well-traveled "The Way I Feel," "Canadian Railroad Trilogy" and "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," along with three obscurities, "Summer Side of Life," "Leaves of Grass" and "Long Way Back Home." So I suppose I'm a fan, if no more so than of some other gifted folk-based singer-songwriters.

In addition, there's Beautiful: A Tribute to Gordon Lightfoot (Borealis/Northernblues, 2003), than which it is unlikely there will be better. Beautiful assembles a number of folk and rock performers, all Canadian but for Maria Muldaur, to celebrate, sometimes to reinvent, the compositions of an artist whose cultural significance in his native land far exceeded anything he could claim south of the border, where he was just another guy with some pop hits. In his time, Lightfoot came close to personifying the national identity to his fellow Canadians. Aengus Finnan's stunning original, "Lightfoot," on Beautiful, directly addresses that issue.

There is not a whole lot that's gratingly, off-puttingly wrong with this more recent tribute, but Tom Granata's Left Foot Lightfoot will be best appreciated by those who know less of Lightfoot's music than some of us do. Otherwise, Granata, who is American (the CD was recorded in New Jersey), is not exactly filling a heretofore-unfilled hole. If he's not a bad singer, he lacks Lightfoot's distinctive silky tenor (sadly gone these past years owing to the consequences of a life-threatening medical crisis) and, more important, his way of delving into a song's emotional core. Granata's arrangements are not radically different -- at least in intention, albeit not always in execution -- from Lightfoot's, though here and there they eschew the excesses of some of the master's later, less listenable Reprise records.

On the other hand, he really ought not to have chosen "Canadian Railroad Trilogy." You can't toss off an epic, and that's what Granata's version sounds as if it were. The song -- actually, as the title indicates, three related songs on the opening of the country to white settlement via the westward movement of the railroad -- can be covered successfully; James Keelaghan does it magnificently in his contribution to Beautiful. Also, "Black Day in July," among Lightfoot's handful of topical ballads (this one concerns the deadly Detroit riots of 1967), is marred by some irritating phrasing whose logic defies my understanding.

If there's little that begins to match the originals, one can credit Granata for his good taste in material. In his later years, Lightfoot's songwriting talent seemed largely spent. Harmony, which for all I know may be his final recording, suggests it is essentially gone. Every song on Left Foot, however, has the virtue of representing prime Lightfoot.

music review by
Jerome Clark

29 January 2011

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