On Friday, some of Winnipeg's finest musicians — including Scott Nolan, Vanessa Kuzina (Oh My Darling), Rusty Matyas (Imaginary Cities) and Red Moon Road — will celebrate the work of one of Canada's finest songwriters at the West End Cultural Centre.
The idea to put on a show paying tribute to Gordon Lightfoot — who blew out 75 candles last month — began, quite fittingly, around a campfire when organizer Lloyd Peterson, a veteran local musician/engineer, was hanging out with his siblings in the Whiteshell this past summer.
"We got singing and passing a bottle around and we started playing Lightfoot tunes. We played until we were bleary-eyed and the sun was coming up, practically," he says with a laugh. "There were so many great songs. We got to talking about what an amazing catalogue he has."
Peterson's no stranger to large-scale concept shows. He was part of 2008's The Last Waltz of the WECC — a local reimagining of The Band's legendary 1976 concert and the final pair of gigs at the former church before it underwent renovations. Peterson had worked with multi-instrumentalist Damon Mitchell on The Last Waltz and was the first musician Peterson called.
"He can play drums and guitar and mandolin — many of them at the same time. I knew he'd be awesome." (Peterson, Mitchell and Julian Bradford will act as a house band, accompanying the guest musicians throughout the night.)
From there, Peterson picked guests he felt would deliver fresh takes on Lightfoot's estimable catalogue. "I believe these songs should be renewed and passed on. We're not doing any faithful cover versions. We're really letting these great artists bring their own perspective to these songs," he says.
Peterson also gave them free reign to choose material that spoke to them. About 26 selections spanning Lightfoot's entire career will be performed at Friday's show.
"I'm very gratified that some of the lesser-known tunes have been picked. He had a lot of hits, but I wanted to poke into the corners a bit," Peterson says.
Another priority was including female perspectives in the show. Both Red Moon Road's Sheena Rattai and Kuzina will lend their voices to Lightfoot's material. Peterson calls Kuzina their "not-so-secret weapon."
"She can harmonize anything. We're having her work extra hard. She's singing on almost every song."
Kuzina has been thrilled to be a part of the show. It's been both a learning experience and a welcome challenge for the Oh My Darling vocalist/guitarist.
"When Lloyd asked me to be a part of it, I had two thoughts: I don't know Gordon Lightfoot's material all that well — but I'd like to get to know it better."
Two early songs jumped out at her: Oh Linda and I'm Not Sayin', both from his 1966 debut Lightfoot! The latter was famously covered by a woman: The Velvet Underground's Nico did a rendition in 1965 shortly after it was released as a single.
"It's not the message I'd usually choose to sing, but it changes when it's sung from a female perspective. I feel like it gets flipped on its head," Kuzina says of the song, in which Lightfoot says he can't promise he can love or be true to a woman, only that he can try.
"The other thing about Gordon Lightfoot is, he has this beautiful baritone," she adds. "I've had to sing a little differently, or change the key in some cases."
Through the rehearsal process, Kuzina and her showmates came to the realization of what a profound influence Lightfoot has had on the Canadian music landscape.
"As a Canadian singer-songwriter I feel it's a rite of passage to learn from his songbook. It's an important thing to do," she says.
And, as it turns out, it's also a fun thing to do.
"The rehearsals have been a riot," Peterson says. "Everyone gets so excited about hearing the songs they've picked."