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Lightfoot praises 'Beautiful' tribute

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Gordon Lightfoot

TORONTO, Ontario (Billboard) -- Canada's foremost folk troubadour of the past four decades pronounces himself "delighted" about the upcoming album release "Beautiful -- A Tribute to Gordon Lightfoot."

"I love this tribute," Lightfoot tells Billboard in a rare interview. "Some of the artists have outdone me on songs.

"There are so many great takes," he continues. "The performances are energetic -- and I appreciate it being done."

The 15-track album includes performances by such leading Canadian acts as Bruce Cockburn, Ron Sexsmith, Cowboy Junkies, the Tragically Hip and Blackie & the Rodeo Kings, as well as U.S. vocalist Maria Muldaur.

The album is a joint project between two Canadian independent labels: Ottawa-based, blues-styled NorthernBlues Music and Toronto's folk-based Borealis Recording Co. It will be released October 7 in North America, distributed in Canada by Festival Distribution in Vancouver and in the U.S. by Big Daddy Distribution in Kenilworth, New Jersey.

Lightfoot, 64, has been quiet since being rushed to the hospital in August 2002 with an undisclosed stomach illness, just hours before he was to perform in his hometown of Orillia, Ontario. Refraining from commenting on his condition, Lightfoot says he is completing a new album, which will be issued independently in early 2004.

"The timing is perfect to pay tribute to Gordon Lightfoot," says NorthernBlues Music owner Fred Litwin, who came up with the album concept. "I'm delighted with the album. I can't stop listening to it."

Borealis co-owner Grit Laskin adds, "We're thrilled with the record. We feel like we've created a piece of Canadian history."

'He sets the standard'

Lightfoot influenced a generation of Canadian performers. Acts as diverse as Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash, Sarah McLachlan and Jane's Addiction have recorded his compositions.

Tragically Hip bassist Gord Sinclair says of Lightfoot, "He sets the standard for us Canadian musicians that have followed in his footsteps. He's a breed that doesn't exist anymore."

Blue Rodeo singer/guitarist Greg Keelor agrees. "Talk about a great career. He is such an amazing guitar player, and his enunciation is so beautiful."

Overseeing the tribute during the past year were Litwin, Laskin and his Borealis partner Bill Garrett, plus producer/guitarist Colin Linden. Despite Lightfoot's repertoire of more than 100 songs spread across some 19 albums, Linden says it was often difficult to match artists to songs. "Gordon casts such a big shadow," he explains. "It's hard for another singer/songwriter to do something that wouldn't pale in comparison."

By choosing to cover Lightfoot's "Ribbon of Darkness," Cockburn says he had to contend with both the artist's 1965 original and Robbins' version, which topped the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart the same year.

"I wanted to do something different and still be respectful of the song," Cockburn says. "I played it on the baritone guitar, and it's more mournful than Lightfoot's version."

Sinclair, however, says that picking Lightfoot's uncharacteristically political song "Black Day in July" from 1968 (chronicling the aftermath of Detroit's 1967 race riots) was "an easy choice" for him. He explains, "When I was a fourth-year student at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, in 1984, I did a term paper based on that song."

Facets of a career

Seven songs on "Beautiful" are from Lightfoot's '60s folk period, in which he recorded five albums for United Artists in the U.S. At the time, Lightfoot worked extensively on the North American folk circuit, but his popularity was primarily in Canada, where he was lionized by the media.

Among the early Lightfoot songs represented are "Canadian Railroad Trilogy" (James Keelaghan), "The Way I Feel" (Cowboy Junkies), "For Lovin' Me" (Terry Tufts) and "Home From the Forest" (Murray McLauchlan). Particularly noteworthy are "Black Day in July" (the Tragically Hip) and "Go Go Round" (Blue Rodeo), as Lightfoot has rarely performed them through the years.

"I love what Lightfoot did in the early days," Cockburn says. "He was finger picking and doing the type of songs I hadn't heard other Canadians do. Plus he had a vibe that was complete in itself and not part of a scene."

As the popularity of folk music waned in the late '60s, Lightfoot signed with Reprise Records in 1970. During the course of the 14 albums he released on the label until 1998, he moved toward an adult contemporary style. He also scored hits with "If You Could Read My Mind" (covered on the tribute by Connie Kaldor), "Sundown" (covered by Jesse Winchester) and "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald."

Other Reprise-era songs that are featured are "Summer Side of Life" (Blackie & the Rodeo Kings), "Song for a Winter's Night" (Quartette), "That Same Old Obsession" (Muldaur), "Bend in the Water" (Harry Manx)" and "Drifters" (Sexsmith). Additionally, there is one non-original, "Lightfoot," penned and performed by Borealis singer/songwriter Aengus Finnan.

Lightfoot marvels at how deftly the tribute covers his career.

"It took Blue Rodeo to breathe life into 'Go Go Round,' " he jokes. "It's also a wonderful performance of 'Canadian Railroad Trilogy,' and I like 'Bend in the Water,' too. Quartette is just wonderful; another that knocked me out was Bruce Cockburn. The Tragically Hip really went after 'Black Day in July' with a lot of gusto."

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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