Ron Sexsmith, Mean Fiddler, London

Tortured soul drawing strength from struggle on long, hard road
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The Independent Culture

The delicately tortured Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith has been on a long, hard road, and it shows no sign of ending.

He's been lauded by Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello, but has never converted acclaim into sales. Star producer Daniel Lanois dumped his latest album, Blue Boy, in favour of U2; his major label refused to release the raw, Steve Earle-produced finished product and, after a year of legal hell, Sexsmith's corporate ties have been cut. Last year, his wife left him after 15 years, citing his "depression'' as one factor.

Raised by his mother on a working-class estate, encouraged by her to vent his emotions weepingly whenever he wanted, and to seek solace in old Elvis records, Sexsmith can hardly have expected a sunny life. Freed from others' expectations, though, and with so many setbacks to rail against, last night was as good a time as any to prove his struggle is still worth it.

He's as chubbily handsome as ever, and his voice is as pure and high. The difference from his last visit here was a full band. Occasionally, this encouraged him to attempt rock and roll, even essaying raw singing, on the bluesy "Not Too Big". But these were rare, distracting mistakes, when what we were there for was the imagined, inescapable small-town America his lyrics and voice have conjured so often.

The early song "Lebenon, Tennessee" may be the template, its narrator stepping down from his bus on the outskirts of town, Sexsmith sighing "Seems as good a place as any". Like the provincial beauty of "Strawberry Blonde", the enervated inhabitants of 'Cheap Hotel', or the gamely struggling 'Ordinary Joe', you know he'll never leave.

There's a mid-temp regularity to the music accompanying these static lives, a sluggishness which may explain Sexsmith's commercial fate. There are depths to the Byrds and the Beatles too, brazenly admitted when he breaks off "Feel For You" for an acoustic snatch of "Here Comes The Sun", dedicated to the ailing George Harrison. More affecting, though, are the early 60s teen ballad-style "Secret Heart", and the Buddy Holly twang in his voice on "Thirsty Love" – indicating the innocence Sexsmith seeks, for all his devastated experience. "Seem To Recall", about better times he can't quite place, sums up his sad predicament.

On a night where a large, appreciative crowd sees Sexsmith gain new heart, "Riverbed" shows him at his strongest. It's another song about accepting defeat, perhaps even suicide, in a river's lulling depths. The band huddle and harmonise like Elvis's Jordanaires, gospel-pure – and for a moment, you can hear what the better times Sexsmith seeks would sound like.

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