"Call me a perfectionist, if you like."
Gordon Lightfoot is at Massey Hall, speaking in a dressing room he knows so well, about his new album, All Live, a compilation of concert cuts recorded from 1998 to 2001 at the corner of Shuter and Victoria streets in downtown Toronto.
"What you're hearing on this record is us," Lightfoot continues, "at our peak, here, first attempt."
What you don't hear are overdubs or re-recorded elements pasted in to cover mistakes in the original performances or recordings. Neither do you hear any manipulation of the audio. "I wasn't going to remix anything," says Lightfoot, his voice nasal but firm, recalling the unmistakable tone of Floyd the Barber from The Andy Griffith Show. "I wanted it to be the raw mix onstage."
Call him a perfectionist if you like, but Lightfoot wasn't going to be caught dead releasing an inferior recording. And, honestly, it almost came to that. While he was in the hospital after suffering an aortic aneurysm in 2001, a contingency plan was drawn up involving the release of a posthumous album using material from Massey recorded in 1998. "They weren't sure at that point if I was going to live or not," the gaunt but spry enough 73-year-old explains.
Of course, the singer survived, more recent ghoulish, erroneous news reports notwithstanding. Still, given his age and health, the idea for a posthumous release – "after I'm pushing up daisies" – was still alive. In 2007, Lightfoot decided to start going through the concert tapes himself, rather than leaving the choices to others.
All the material from the vaults came from Massey shows – he has played the red-doored dandy on more than 150 occasions – recorded in 1998, 1999, 2001, 2006 and 2008. Lightfoot quickly dismissed the post-illness performances as being inferior, and so he settled on the earlier shows. "The vocals were full," he says. "The band was at full strength."
Lightfoot wasn't happy with the original album with 1998 material; he didn't like the flow, and he didn't like the dialogue between songs. "I like to sing a lot more than I like to talk."
Poring over the material, he came up with 30 "good" performances. Eleven of them had minor mistakes: "Being the perfectionist that I am," he wouldn't use them. After that, the sound levels of the remaining 19 tracks, culled from six concerts, needed to be matched.
One would think, in a digital age, that equalizing the volume levels would be a quick, easy thing. But? "Numbers will tell you a certain amount," Lightfoot explains. "But for the rest, you have to do by ear."
The process took five years, all told. One wonders how long a more thorough job of packaging by the archival label Rhino would have delayed the album, which is being released Tuesday. Liner notes are disappointedly brief.
As well, the decision to produce a compilation of live tracks, rather than exclusively use the material from 1998, deprives the listener of a concert experience. Each song fades out, ruining any continuity or a sense of occasion derived from something such as Neil Young's extraordinary Live at Massey Hall 1971.
After our interview, Lightfoot walks down from the various rooms upstairs – "this is where I tune my guitar" – and steps onto the stage alone, strumming his Martin acoustic as he make his way to the centre of the boards.
There, unprompted, he picks at the notes and softly murmurs the words to 1983's Knotty Pine and I'll Tag Along from 1986. On the latter, his eyes are closed as he sings in an empty performance hall only to himself: "This time tomorrow, we might be all packed and gone; I believe it's best we carry on."
From the front row, I clap when he is finished. And Lightfoot has never seemed so perfect. Asked if he would ever commit to a Massey Hall farewell concert, the troubadour – this painter passing through – scoffs at the notion. "No, I will not," he says with conviction. "We will continue."
The stage is his, then. Turn on the lights, bring him in and call him whatever he wishes to be called. He has earned that much.