Lighthouse evolves with changing times

Matt Gardner
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Lighthouse will perform at the E.A. Rawlinson Centre on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Keyboard player and founding member Paul Hoffert is at far left in the front row.

For legendary Canadian band Lighthouse, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Even as changing technology has significantly altered the music industry and how bands promote their recordings, the philosophy of the Toronto-based fusion ensemble has remained a constant.

“Lighthouse was always a band where we play for the audience, but we also played for each other,” keyboardist and founding member Paul Hoffert said.

“We have very high musical standards. It was always a band whose members were among the best musicians in the world, continues to be, and one of the reasons that it’s very satisfying to play in Lighthouse is that … we’re always trying to keep everything fresh.

“We’re always trying to improve what we do, and if you’re a musician and an artist, then that’s very satisfying.”

Prince Albert audiences will be able to hear for themselves how the band has held up on Wednesday, when Lighthouse is set to take the E.A. Rawlinson Centre stage at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available at the box office or online for $43.05.

While fans can expect to hear classic hits such as One Fine Morning, Sunny Days and Hats Off (To The Stranger), the upcoming show will also play to the band’s improvisational strengths.

“I would say about maybe two-thirds of the show would be songs that we’ve done before and about a third would be the songs that you haven’t heard,” Hoffert said.

“Lighthouse is a band that does a lot of improvisation and kind of jazz fusion rock sort of stuff, (so) that every night even some of the songs that you may have heard before are quite different, because of the improvisation and the solos and the way we do things on stage,” he added.

“So people who know Lighthouse just from our songs, we welcome you all to our gigs. But be prepared to hear quite a few things that you didn’t hear on the recordings.”

That love of improvisation was a key factor in the formation of Lighthouse in 1968.

Hoffert noted the formative influence of big band-era jazz musicians such as Count Basie and Duke Ellington -- as well as more contemporary acts such as Blood, Sweat and Tears -- in his development of a musical partnership with drummer and fellow founding member Skip Prokop.

“Skip and I both had strong jazz influences, even though he came from a rock band and I came from really the world of jazz and film scoring, and we both liked improvisation, we both liked jazz, and we both liked rock and roll,” he recalled.

“The question was, would there be a way to incorporate that along with our love of movies and … orchestral film scores?”

Another influence on the band was the career trajectory of bands such as The Beatles, which were increasingly utilizing studio musicians to create their landmark albums of the era.

One drawback of that approach was the difficulty of recreating such complex sounds in a live setting -- a major reason the Fab Four stopped touring.

“We thought, ‘Why don’t we put together a band and that whatever we do in the studio, we’ll be able to perform it live?’” Hoffert said.

Starting as a 13-piece band, the original incarnation of Lighthouse included a string quartet, jazz horn quartet and rhythm section quartet.

At a time of sharp conflict between the generations, the band’s fusion of musical influences also had a more idealistic element, Hoffert noted.

“We thought by having … jazz and classical music and rock and roll in one band that we could kind of promote this kind of peace, love, groovy feeling among all sorts of people.”

Lighthouse quickly developed a strong following and racked up numerous radio hits over the next several years, winning three consecutive Juno Awards for Best Canadian Group of the Year.

We’re always trying to improve what we do, and if you’re a musician and an artist, then that’s very satisfying. Paul Hoffert

The group’s popularity was aided by constant touring. At its peak, Lighthouse was performing approximately 250 concerts per year.

Yet the grueling nature of life on the road gradually began to take its toll.

Aside from the physical effects on increasingly exhausted band members, Hoffert pointed to the need to spend more time with family as one of the factors in the disbanding of the group at the end of the 1970s.

“I really decided that I didn’t want to miss the time that you could never recover when your kids are growing up … That was my reason, and the other guys had their own reasons and that might have played into theirs.”

With the group’s members going their separate ways, each explored new career paths.

For his part, Hoffert became known for his achievements in science and technology, which included the foundation of the CulTech Research Centre at York University.

While Lighthouse reformed for four concerts at Ontario Place in 1982 that drew 30,000 people, the competing responsibilities of the band members precluded a return to touring until the next decade.

“As life goes on and you sort of retire from those regular day gigs that you have, we became more available to spend more time (touring),” Hoffert noted.

“The odd thing that one wouldn’t have expected is that we’re performing a lot (more) now than we ever were, except for the time when Lighthouse was at its peak with records on the Top 10 and Top 40.”

While the band relishes its return to touring, Hoffert noted that the music industry has changed considerably over the years.

Compared to the many different kinds of venues the band used to play, he said, today there are few middle-sized venues, with bands able play either small bars or much larger arena or festival shows.

Similarly, he described a reluctance by the band to release a new full-length album, given the increasingly anachronistic nature of the format in light of declining CD sales and the prevalence of MP3s.

“Lighthouse fortunately still sells some CDs … because some of our audiences has been around and they appreciate having the physical product and stuff like that,” he said.

“But we’ve had to modify what we do to suit today’s audiences, who are interested in Twitter and the web and social media and all the rest of it.

“So we do the best we can, and the truth is, we’re really, really thankful that 40 years after we started … we can still have an audience that is interested in our music. Pretty well all the time when we finish a concert, they get up and they give us some applause, and that’s a wonderful feeling.”

Given their focus on musicianship above all, the live arena retains its primacy for Lighthouse, with the band’s theatrical yet straightforward approach to performing.

The continued success of Lighthouse in the live setting seemed to surprise even one of its founding members.

“When we started out, believe me, none of us thought that we’d ever be able to go on a tour 40 years later,” Hoffert said. “We thought that once we hit 30 years old, it would likely be the end of any kind of career we might have.

“So there you go -- life is surprising.”

Organizations: Prince Albert, Hats Off, The Beatles Best Canadian Group of the Year CulTech Research Centre York University

Geographic location: Ontario Place, Twitter

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