Live / Ron Sexsmith Borderline, London

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The Independent Culture
The meek don't always inherit the earth but sometimes they finally get an even break. For most of his British debut at a packed and sweaty Borderline, Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith acted like he'd just walked through the door at his own surprise birthday party. Despite his choirboy looks and Rubber Soul- era hairstyle (he unconvincingly claimed to be "recovering from a bad haircut"), Sexsmith is past the first flush of youth and must have briefly feared he was doomed to spend the rest of his life working in Toronto as a courier and playing the bars by night. Even after he finally got to record his gorgeously intimate debut with the ubiquitous Mitchell Froom, the album was promptly buried as his label Interscope left Atlantic during arguments over their involvement with rapper Dr Dre's profitable but provocative Death Row Records. Fortunately, Interscope are now hooked up with RCA who're giving Sexsmith's album a second chance thanks to the support of the likes of Elvis Costello who made it his album of the year in Mojo.

Critical approbation and word of mouth delivered a wildly appreciative crowd to the Borderline, most of whom soon assumed the self-satisfied air of private torch-carriers finally being proved right in public. Flanked by a trio marred only by a sadly immodest bass player of the Bryan Adams school and carrying only an acoustic guitar on which he proceeded to pick the sparsest and most delicate of melodies, Sexsmith proceeded to charm the pants off the place. Imagine John Sebastian at his least ingratiating, Jackson Browne without the narcissism and the Beatles-rather-than- Memphis-influenced Alex Chilton and you're starting to get a bead on Sexsmith's disarmingly vulnerable voice and his flair for writing confessional songs that brim with that most uncommon of emotions, simple gratitude. Despite the odd garage rocker, most of Sexsmith's songs are fingerpicked ballads whose air of quiet joy or mellow resignation seems to belong to another era. Certainly a haunting cover of Brian Wilson's "Caroline No" plus songs from Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan might suggest that he's something of a 1960s throwback, particularly as he's not afraid to celebrate ordinary, everyday epiphanies in songs like "Wastin' Time" and the new "You Were There".

Yet amid all this warm and healing balm, there's an utterly unsentimental eye for the quirks and follies of the human heart, an eye that enables him to write tunes like "Pretty Little Cemetery", a succession of haiku- like verses that gradually belie and complicate the cuteness of both the melody and the title. Droll and self-deprecating between songs, Sexsmith had the whole room eating out of his hand by the time he got to his final encore, "Galbraith Street". Playing solo again, he hushed the place and transported it quietly to the street he grew up on as a child. The particular address may be singular to Sexsmith but everybody in the room was smiling a little tearfully and seemed to know clearly the very street he meant.

MARK COOPER

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