The weight of expectation is in danger of dragging Ron Sexsmith down. Intemperate accolades from Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello and Ray Davies, as well as from a slew of reviewers, has all but demanded the Canadian's early induction into the Great Singer-Songwriter's Inner Circle. But the critics at least lace their praise with fear, every recent review mentioning the low sales of his three major-label LPs, as if a tap on the shoulder may soon abort all his apparent promise. The fact that the youngest of his celebrity sponsors is over forty is also indicative of the tentative hold Sexsmith can hope for on 21st-century charts. But the commercial storm clouds don't seem to bother him. This latest of several UK tours in the year since his last album, Whereabouts, was released, seems in a spirit less of frantic promotion than of a social call: another friendly visit to the fans he does have.
Baby-faced and tousle-haired, Sexsmith is certainly an appealing performer in the flesh, shy, self-deprecating banter with the crowd replaced by a look of real transport when he shuts his eyes and sings, with a high, full voice. But the singing soon lets in throaty grains of impurity which come and go almost at will, as if he's trying to fray his natural smoothness.
The songs also have a classicist's sheen - Sexsmith introduces a cover of Leonard Cohen's "That's No Way To Say Goodbye" by noting his fellow Canadian's ability "to say things this simply" as an inspiration. The spare elegance of Sexsmith's constructions, though, house a suburban strangeness all his own. "Lebanon, Tennessee" takes for its subject the sort of American small town younger, hipper talents like Smog's Will Callahan treat with ferocious venom, and imbues the details of life there with almost imperceptible mystery, exoticising the mundane. "Pretty Little Cemetery" takes us to the town's sunlit edge, then lets the night fall with a shivery last line, while the beautiful "Riverbed" is somewhere between a hymn to a glistening stream and a soporific suicide note from its bottom. It's these story songs that Sexsmith sings with the most intensity tonight, and here that the claims for his craft seem most true.
Whether he has more to give, whether he's really gifted with the greatness of a Dylan or Costello seems frankly unlikely. This isn't music touched by the times, or capable of touching them. But as the thirtyish couples who make up most of his audience stare at him raptly, there are clearly still some listeners ready for his mellow grace.