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By Constance Scrafield
Last week, on May 1st , Gordon Lightfoot died. A Canadian hero as a singer/song writer, his words and music have spanned over half a century of songs that defined Canada and carved a unique place in the hearts of Canadians who heard him. Even at nearly 80 years old, Gordon Lightfoot was touring, standing for two hours to sing in each show, telling the stories of Canada and his own life.
On May 6, on stage at the Orillia Opera House, Gordon Lightfoot's home town, Leisa Way and her Wayward Wind Band performed their concert, Early Morning Rain about Gordon Lightfoot, written, performed and produced by Leisa Way herself.
“It was such an honour to bring this concert to Orillia just at this moment,” she told the Citizen earlier this week. “We were so concerned to get everything right. He had perfect pitch so, his band's guitars had to be perfectly tuned. We thought about that when we were setting up for the show [on Saturday], making sure everything was perfect.”
Not a tribute as such but a comprehensive tour of Gordon Lightfoot's life and music told in stories and performance, Early Morning Rain,was scheduled to come to Orillia later this year. However, it was decided to bring the concert to Orillia at the beginning of the 26 cities -tour Ms. Way and her Band have booked instead, for this earlier date and was an arrangement made well before Mr. Lightfoot's passing.
Early Morning Rain is not entirely new, for Leisa Way and her Band premiered it here at Theatre Orangeville on February 13, 2020, closing just before the Covid protocols shut theatres down across the land. With Mr. Lightfoot's death, a degree of re-crafting the story-telling has been necessary – to create it and re-learn the new adaptations of these stories.
Ms. Way told us, “It was all so serendipitous. That we had changed the booking at Orillia to May 6 and then, he died and we were there with a well created and rehearsed concert, not something just thrown together at the last moment. The theatre was half booked from the publicity of our concert date but within 24 hours of the news that he had died, the [677 seat] theatre was sold out. Their box office couldn't keep with the calls.”
The news of this upcoming show in Orillia had the press at her door, wanting video interviews, wanting her to “come to Toronto for an interview..” but some of those opportunities for publicity had to be by-passed by how much there was to do in preparation for the show. Details can consume a lot of time, even to the pre-show music and the specifics about the lighting design and the sound.
Rehearsing the changes to the concert and bringing in a new member, Brant Garratt were priorities. He was a guitar player and singer in the background of YouTube videos Ms. Way was watching of three fiddlers she was checking out for a later show. There was this brilliant guitarist, a young man with a wonderful voice, singing Gordon Lightfoot songs. She goggled him and she hired him. Serendipity.
Backing her all the way are her band members, of whom she said, “I am blessed to have such a wonderful band. It is such a joy to be surrounded by these human beings.”
They are Bruce Ley, Fred Smith, Bobby Prochaska, Don Reid and Brant Garratt.
There was all the preparation and it was all ready for the moment when the stage was lit and the audience filled the theatre. Yet, Leisa and the band members felt themselves more nervous than usual just as they were going on that stage. Usually so easy, the whole band, they found themselves shaking.
“I'm always nervous going out to perform,” she affirmed. “But once we were on stage, it all came together and they sang so well. Our focus was very clear.”
Once they were singing, though, they were so happy and, sometimes, so sad.
As was the audience, carried by the familiar songs, the excellence of the musicians on stage, Leisa Way said, “We felt a responsibility to do our best for him. I had a little moment with feeling he was there. We wished we had opened earlier to be sure of getting this performance right but there wasn't one note short. We had a new player and we didn't know how he'd be in front of an audience but he knocked it out of the park!”
There was a hush on the audience and Leisa and her band felt so honoured to be sharing this concert with them.
“It's almost like a healing,” was her comment. “The gift to all of us is this music. Young people can come to thisconcert and learn about him.”
In 2006, Mr. Lightfoot had a minor stroke which somewhat disabled his right [playing] hand. Coming back after that stroke to play his guitar again showed a strength of character, she claimed. It made him a hero to other musicians.
As he changed his life, coming off his addictions, determined to make up for his mistakes of his past, when Gordon Lightfoot told stories about his life, his was inclined to tell the truth, making up for lost time.
At the end of this monumental evening, Ms. Way related, “The audience – you could sense the sadness at the end but there was an immediate standing ovation that was quite extended. We just stood around hugging each other. It was an emotional moment, more than one moment.
“Many people were there who knew him personally.”
For anyone who missed seeing Early Morning Rain in 2019 or in Orillia last weekend, the concert is coming to Theatre Collingwood from June 6 to 10. On Gordon Lightfoot's birthday, November 17, Leisa Way and the Wayward Wind Band will be performing Early Morning Rain at the Rose Theatre in Brampton.
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