I’ve enjoyed some of Canada’s best musical exports lately. This trio of singers, who also write their own songs, lyrics and play instantly recognizable guitar, have been symbols of not only of the Land of Maple but also folk music. For a few different reasons, they each have been in the musical news recently despite having started in the same Toronto scene 50 years ago. And like well-worn denim, their music is still comfortable and timeless, understated and built-to-last.
Back in May we lost one of the great folk artists when Gordon Lightfoot died of natural causes at 84. I was fortunate enough to see him perform at the Topeka Performing Arts Center in 2009. Despite not being in the wheelhouse of a young college student, the seemingly effortless melodies and rich storytelling in his songs really captivated me. His voice wasn’t as forceful and he’d notably thinned since an aneurysm and abdominal surgeries a few years before. But I heard him interviewed around then saying there’s nothing he’d rather do than tour and perform. And that’s just what he did, playing shows right up until 2022.
I recently checked out the 2022 documentary about him. “Gord,” as he’s referred to throughout, rightly features as the central interviewee. The film makes great use of archival footage and newer interviews. His parents talk about his very normal childhood. Then Lightfoot takes us on a tour of Yorkville, the “Haight-Ashbury of Toronto,” today and compares it with the ’60s, shown in b-roll. It charts his rise through that scene to the breakout success in America.
Lots of his contemporaries like Anne Murray give their recollections about interactions over the years. Likewise, later Canadian musicians like Rush and Sarah McLachlan describe his influence. You get to hear the true stories and inspirations behind his classics like “Sundown,” “Song for a Winter’s Night,” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” I’d always assumed that was song was about a turn-of-the-century shipwreck, not a contemporary 1975 incident! The documentary doesn’t shy away from his alcoholism or the fraught relationships that inspired such moving ballads.
Joni Mitchell is one of my favorite musicians, bar none. Her music was a staple at home growing up. As a result, her lyrics opened my mind to music as poetry, biography and statement. Her guitar introduced me to open tuning and modal chords, creating rich tones that don’t sound like regular pop. And her reverence for jazz created a unique fold in the otherwise pretty traditional (and white) folk music genre.
From back in the Laurel Canyon days, she’s worked with a wide variety of studio and touring collaborators including Wayne Shorter, Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius and Charles Mingus. Unfortunately, like Gordon Lightfoot, Mitchell also suffered a serious aneurysm in 2015, leading to years of rehabilitation for basic functions. Not the least of which was playing the guitar. That’s what makes this recording so inspiring.
During her recovery, Mitchell was relegated to honoree at tributes like the 2021 Kennedy Center Honor. As a growing group of musicians paid respects for her great influence, some of them, led by Brandi Carlile, began to come over and jam at her house. Her instruments weren’t going to use for these recuperating years. So this recurring friends jam let Mitchell ease back into music as new and old friends stopped by. At the 2022 Newport Folk Festival, Carlile surprised the crowd by inviting Mitchell herself to perform on stage for a public “Joni Jam” complete with carpet and couches. Eleven songs spanning her career drift by with an ease that only comes with familiarity. Carlile, Marcus Mumford (“A Case of You”) and Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes (“Come in from the Cold”) take the lead on their songs. Elsewhere, Mitchell finds her solo voice again. It’s wonderful to hear her current thoughts, song inspirations and delighted laughter throughout.
Joni Mitchell and Neil Young share a health history as survivors of childhood polio. Both got their start in Toronto’s bohemian Yorkville neighborhood (with Lightfoot). But unlike his Canadian peers who broke into America solo, Young crossed over as a member of nationally mixed bands. First with Buffalo Springfield and then as a short-lived part of Crosby, Stills & Nash. The years following his departure saw Young record a wealth of incredible material as he honed his solo sound. For years, some of these recordings intended to be albums were only available as bootlegs and live recordings. But Young’s known for a few things: a DIY mindset, a champion of hi-fi audio quality, a prolific output and an archivist’s ethic for getting his stuff out there.
Chrome Dreams is one of his most coveted unreleased albums, even inspiring his 2007 album title Chrome Dreams II. It was recorded in various sessions between 1974 and 1977. He supposedly had an open invite to his engineer’s house to record on full moons during this time. In fact, on “Will to Love” you can hear his fireplace crackling. Some of these tracks are well-known to fans, as many appear on his quintessential live album Rust Never Sleeps, performed during this period. “Sedan Delivery” shows that even Young wasn’t immune to punk’s late ’70s dominance. But on Chrome Dreams it’s stripped down to rock & roll roots. These are clearly closer to demos but never sound lacking, just more intimate. And they’ve sound more album-worthy than ever here. The eight minute “Like a Hurricane” lets Young’s guitar solos stretch and distort in heavy ways that would influence Sonic Youth and Nirvana.
As we put the summer heat behind us, these tunes can ease us into the cozy melancholy of autumn’s chill. Whether you prefer Lightfoot’s country stylings, Joni’s jazzy influence or young Neil’s restless rock, there’s a homegrown comfort in these Canadian peers’ music. They shared their roots in folk and Toronto, but also an emphasis on incredible lyricism and songcraft that makes the profound seem simple and easy.