P: How is the weather in Toronto, Gordon?
G: It's cold. Very cold.
P: Why has it been more than three decades since your last tour of the UK? I hope we didn't do anything to offend you?
G: (laughs) No, I had always hoped I would get back at one point in my life but the years just went by. I wasn't getting any younger and we were receiving all kinds of requests from people to go over.
People were coming over here to Canada, flying over from Britain to see us, so we decided to make the trip. It's a much larger tour than we've ever done there before. I actually lived in Britain for five months, at the time when The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were hitting the headlines, right through that summer of 1963. I lived at 56 Gloucester Road in London and I took the tube over to Shepherds Bush to do rehearsals for these 'Country & Western' shows I was doing on the BBC.
P: I'm calling from Newcastle, where you are to perform at the City Hall on Saturday, May 21. The last and only previous time you played that venue was in 1972. Any particular memories of that concert or that UK tour?
G: I can recall a lot of the shows we did that tour. I remember we played Dublin and Belfast and we would always get to the venue when there was some kind of a political problem going on. It was like we'd arrive there and there would be some demonstration. You had to go through a guard post to get from Northern Ireland to southern Ireland. I remember doing that late at night and our promoter, Jimmy Aiken, talking to the guards and explaining what we were doing there at that hour of the night, you know? But on that same tour I got word that my record had gone to number one on the Billboard chart, back here in the States, my song 'Sundown' had moved McCartney back to number two and I was at number one.
P: I know there are always about a dozen of the same songs you play at every concert but can we expect some more obscure choices on this tour. Perhaps 'Whispers of the North', 'Knotty Pine' or 'Biscuit City', all from 1983's 'Salute'. That's a great, under-rated album. And how do you condense a 50-year-long songbook into twenty-odd songs each night?
G: I'm trying to think about that album, 'Salute', that's one of my favourite albums, although why I ever called it 'Salute' I don't know. I should have called it 'Whispers of the North'. It was produced by Dean Parks, a really talented producer.
We have got about 45 songs we choose from, the kind of tunes that have momentum, you know, and I have to boil that down to 26 or 27 tunes for each show and I do two hours and five or ten minutes, with a 20 minute intermission. I try not to go on too long really and we even condense songs by dropping a verse here and there. A lot of songs we edit, making a medley out of them almost in order to do all the songs the audience wants to hear. There are certain standards that are really well known, such as 'If I Could Read Your Mind', 'Sundown', 'The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald', 'Carefree Highway', 'Early Morning Rain'. They all have to get done and the other 30 tunes are in rotation around them.
There are many permutations and combinations. I can travel between the cities doing nothing but figuring out what to do. I can spend several hours doing that. I'm always thinking about the show I'm going to do that night.
P: You have a relentless touring schedule for a performer in his seventies. What keeps you on the road?
G: I, like many of my compatriots, just love the work and I have really terrific back-up. They are all professionals. I have four guys backing me. We play I guess what you call folk-rock, that's probably the closest term to describe what we do, but all the songs I do have a beat, all the songs we do on stage.
P: It's been some years since we have heard any new Lightfoot songs. Has the muse deserted you or can we expect a welcome musical surprise from you soon?
G: There are always four or five songs hanging around but I tend to leave songwriting for the young now. We try to make the old songs sound new, songs like 'Now and Then', off my 'Cold on the Shoulder' album. It's the only tune in my whole stage repertoire that is in C-shape for a 12-string guitar.
P: You are one of the most covered songwriters in the history of popular music and Bob Dylan has often cited you as his favourite singer-songwriter. How do you respond to that?
G: Dylan has always been very kind to me and he is the king of that realm, that goes without saying.
P: A couple of years ago Dylan did a version of your song 'Shadows' in concert and another of your compositions, 'I'm Not Supposed to Care', a few years earlier. Did you get to hear those versions?
G: Yes, I did. As I say he's been very kind to me through the years and I don't know why. We had the same office for a time and I've been listening to him since his very first album. I got to hear that hot off the press. I thought 'boy, we've got something different here' and it made me think 'can I do this as well?'. I got the work ethic and I got as close as I could to him - in my own style.
P: You have both done each others' songs over the years. You have covered Dylan's 'Ballad in Plain D' that appeared in the movie 'Renaldo and Clara' and, more recently, 'Ring Them Bells'.
G: Ring Them Bells is such a beautiful song, we do that all the time. We don't do it every night but very often, about every second or third show. It's a great tune. The one song I wish I'd written is Bob's 'A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall'.
P: You have never done an album of cover songs but what did you think of Dylan's Sinatra-inspired 'Shadows in the Night' album. Have you heard it?
G: No, I haven't heard that one yet and I know it's there. I know I should listen to that and I probably will. In fact, thank you for reminding me to do so. But covering those songs is not something I would do.
P: Are you still in contact with Bob?
G: Yes, once in a while. The last time I saw Bob was when he was playing at the Sony theater here in Toronto, that was a couple of years back. At one point I had five of my family crammed into his dressing room. I see him through the years.
P: Fellow Canadian Neil Young also recorded two of your songs, 'If I Could Read Your Mind' and 'Early Morning Rain', on his 'A Letter Home' album a couple of years ago. What did you think of them?
G: Oh, yes, I heard those, very good. I have never heard a cover version that I didn't like. When someone does one of your tunes it is really encouraging and it makes you want to work a little harder. I love the versions of 'Early Morning Rain' by Peter Paul and Mary and by Ian and Sylvia, and then Elvis did it. He did a really good job with Charlie McCoy on harmonica, that's my favourite cover version of them all.
P: I know you can't vote in the election, but have you been following the US Presidential race?
G: I really think it's about the best entertainment on television. The Republicans had 12 or 13 candidates to start out and Donald Trump just happened to be one of them and he just jumped out. Maybe he met the standards of TV.
P: Thanks so much for your time Gordon. I'm really looking forward to seeing you in Newcastle.
G: My pleasure. I'll put you down for a 'meet and greet' - see you in Newcastle!"