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Concert Review by Nick Morgan

Ron Sexsmith

Ron Sexsmith
The Barbican, London, April 30th 2011

To be honest I’m not entirely sure who was more surprised, me, the Photographer, or Ron.  But from where I was sitting I could see just how much Ron Sexsmith was taken aback by the unexpected rock-star reception royale he received from the more-often subdued Barbican audience. 

Perhaps this is Ron’s moment.  He is, after all, one of the great living songwriters, widely admired and eulogised by his peers, but always, apparently, the wrong side of commercial success.  His many tribulations have been laid bare in the film documentary Love Shines, recently aired in the UK.  It was filmed during the recording of his latest album, Long Player Late Bloomer, produced by veteran Bob Rock, whose alumni include Metallica, Mötley Crüe, Bon Jovi, Joan Jett and Bryan Adams.  Rightly or wrongly, the film portrayed a singer haunted by his past, plagued by stage-fright, and wracked with uncertainties as a result of continued commercial failure.  

The album, so said the film, was his last chance to break through and achieve the success he craved; hence the presence of the unlikely Rock, an established hit-maker with a Midas touch.  But the story ended on a low:  the album was rejected by Warner Brothers, and then by a smaller independent  label for being ‘too mainstream’ (and to be honest, despite the marvellous songs, it does have some Radio 2 moments, thanks to Mr Rock’s production).  Was there any future for our hero?  Well apparently yes.  The album has been released to some acclaim on Cooking Vinyl in Europe and the movie has been something of a hit.  And at the Barbican the crowd are going, as I said, rock-star wild.

Sexsmlith CD

Two songs in, ‘Heart’s desire’ and ‘Get in line’ (the latter from the new album) and Sexsmith pauses for a drink; “wow, my hands are shaking” he says.  Last time we saw him in London, in a much more intimate venue with only a tiny audience, he seemed almost petrified at the start; “I’m really nervous, I mean this is London, right?”.  Tonight the Barbican is sold out, meaning  two thousand people.  It’s a big night for him.  His career is on the cusp.  He’s already served up a pretty poor live performance of ‘Believe it when I see it’, one of the best tunes on Long Player, on BBC’s Later, a show that can make or break artists in the UK.  “One of the worst versions of this next song I’ve ever done” explained Sexsmith apologetically, blaming fatigue and jet-lag. Yet expectations are high.  Thankfully he more than delivered, with a four-and-a-half out of five-star show.  And although I was reminded just what a perfect piece of work Sexsmith is, with painfully-observed, brilliantly-crafted, and wonderfully simple songs, enchanting melodies, a sweet and deceptively strong voice, and, as he demonstrated more than once (on songs like ‘Wastin’ time’ and ‘Secret heart’) a very accomplished guitar technique, a lot of those stars should also go to his band.  In addition to their all-round great playing, the backing vocals from drummer Blake Manning, pianist Dave Matheson, and bassist Jason Mercer, were superb, taking many of the songs to another level.  Stand-in guitarist Stuart Cameron was only on his third gig, yet he was both note and pedal perfect, gave a pleasing rocking edge to the night (something that is somewhat lacking from the new album), earning the obvious admiration of his band mates in the process.

Ron Sexsmith 2

The set does full justice both to the new album and to Sexsmith’s considerable back catalogue of songs, from twenty years’ worth of albums.  And try as he might, he can’t escape the fact that he produced on some of his earliest recordings a handful of timeless songs that he is unlikely to surpass.  ‘Secret heart’, ‘Dandelion wine’, ‘Galbraith Street’, ‘Hard bargain’ (just recorded by Emmylou Harris) and the song that got him his first recording deal, ‘Speaking with the angel’.  Introducing this, written for his first child when Sexsmith himself was still a teenager, allowed him to take issue with one theme of the Love Shines movie, his allegedly strained relationship with his now adult son.  He was clearly at great pains to set the record straight on this point. 

He also won over any doubters in the audience at a stroke when he introduced ‘Tomorrow in her eyes’.  “This is possible the most romantic song I’ve ever written, and I’ve written a few …”, before handing a handwritten copy of the lyrics to a member of the audience who had requested them (through Sexsmith’s website) for his sweetheart.  Gooey stuff, but the crowd loved it.  Twenty-four songs in all, with an encore starting with a solo version of ‘Galbraith Street’, and then with the band ‘Not about to lose’ and from Long Player Late Bloomer, ‘Every time I follow’.  “This is incredible for me to have some momentum for a change”, Sexsmith had said as he returned to the stage, clearly moved by the response of his audience.  And as he finally left, to a standing ovation, it was difficult to understand how anyone could think this remarkable artist’s career could be in any doubt. – Nick Morgan (concert photographs by Kate)

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