Reserved Canadian delves into his back catalogue to give a songwriting masterclass – with jokes!
It’s hard to believe that 27 years have passed since Ron Sexsmith released his celebrated and self-titled breakthrough major label album. Tonight, he showcased songs from across his career to date, from that ‘Ron Sexsmith’ album right up to his most recent offering ‘Hermitage’, observing as he introduced ‘You Don’t Wanna Hear It’ that this tour was the first occasion since its release in 2020, that he had been able to play the songs live. The performance was solo with Sexsmith moving between his semi-acoustic guitar and a Steinway grand piano. The Royal Northern College of Music, which had presumably supplied the said instrument for the evening, is a venue that lent itself well to Sexsmiths’s solo performance. The venue acoustics are excellent, and the sound engineer tapped into them perfectly. Crucially though, Sexsmith himself was in fine voice and took full advantage of his august surroundings.
Sexsmith’s show illustrated elements of both change and continuity. The continuity was evident in the quality and consistency of his songs across his back catalogue. Much has been made of Sexsmith’s songwriting craft. In many ways it is almost too good for his own good. The subtleties, nuances and clever lines are not always instant or immediate and as such have been resistant to hitmaking. Nevertheless, he has won admirers amongst people who know a thing or two about songwriting themselves, including Ray Davies, Elvis Costello and Elton John. A good number of people who also appreciate the genuine craft of his music showed up tonight to witness him work his way through 29 songs of enduring quality. From ‘Miracles’ with which he opened up, through to ‘Love Shines’ which he closed the show with, Sexsmith gave an effortless and confident demonstration of a master craftsman who needs only the bare minimum tools to work his magic.
There were elements of continuity elsewhere too. The way Sexsmith unassumingly wandered on with his trademark mop of hair and sporting the obligatory crumpled and slightly ill-fitting jacket was typical of the man. However, this was also a changed Sexsmith. Now 58, he joked that as his hair greyed, he was beginning to look like Albert Einstein. This was indicative of a more confident Sexsmith, removed from the shy and sometimes uncommunicative persona of his early years. As he sipped on a mug of tea, Sexsmith entertained the audience with his humorous and frequently self-deprecating stories, anecdotes, and jokes. This gave a warmth to his performance that has sometimes been lacking in the past.
German electronic pioneers Tangerine Dream were playing in the larger of the two RNCM halls the same evening. This became a running theme for Sexsmith’s jokes: when a slight hiss appeared, he enquired whether it was a problem with his sound or whether perhaps Tangerine Dream had begun their set. Before playing it, Sexsmith referenced how thrilled he was when Emmylou Harris recorded his song ‘Hard Bargain’ and by contrast later mentioned that Michael Bublé had also recorded one of his songs ‘Whatever It Takes’ before adding “this is what it should sound like”. Add in stories about moving to the countryside, an owl and a joke about hoping the audience would still be there when he returned for his second set, expressing concern that we would all leave to see Tangerine Dream and he’d be left playing to the cleaners, and you get a feel for a more mature, more at ease Ron Sexsmith.
Among the many musical highlights were ‘Pretty Little Cemetary’ reworked for piano and his first song at the Steinway, the moving ‘Fallen’ – “ the most romantic song I’ve ever written” and ‘In A Flash’ originally written to mark Jeff Buckley’s death, later played for Elliot Smith and tonight dedicated to Dallas Good. Old favourites like ‘Secret Heart’ and ‘Strawberry Blonde’ were also particularly well received. Before leaving the floor at the end of his second set Sexsmith gave us a final reminder of his dry humour by thanking Ron Sexsmith for opening the show. Two encores followed before Sexsmith shuffled away in the same unassuming manner that he had first taken the stage over two hours earlier. It had been a very enjoyable and impressive demonstration of songcraft. On the way out I bumped into a man that I had briefly spoken to when parking my car. I asked what he thought of the show to which he replied “I think I prefer him solo to with a band, it just brings out the songs so much more” Exactly.