Zap Ron Sexsmith back 20 years, have him audition for Fame Academy, and it's easy to predict how things would pan out. The judges would undoubtedly chide him for his lack of image/charisma, then relent and argue that he should make the cut by dint of sheer talent. Talent is something this Canadian has in spades, his song writing more worthy of the Brill Building than the aforementioned seat of pop star fabrication. As ably displayed on his 1997 Other Songs, Sexsmith is highly adept at turning a sweetly understated lyric full-circle.
But the problem of how to sell his music remains. You sense that many a marketing exec has scratched their head over Ron's cherubic features and terminal modesty. On the cover of his 1999 Whereabouts, it was someone's naff idea to have him photographed holding a maple leaf. This only reinforced the misapprehension that Ron is a wimp.
On current album Cobblestone Runway, moreover, the producer Martin Terefe decided that having Coldplay's Chris Martin sing on "Gold In Them Hills (Remix)" might sex things up a bit. Sexsmith, who was absent from the session, later confessed to mixed feelings about the recording, because he'd been told Martin would be playing piano, not singing. Ron loved what Chris Martin added but knew he'd been manipulated.
Tonight, there's no such tension in the air. Sexsmith seems completely relaxed, joking about Robbie Williams's curious popularity and breezing through early problems with his mike. There's a rich, slightly soporific quality to his voice that relaxes the listener, too, and his phrasing sometimes has the melting fluidity of a tenor sax.
To borrow from Brian Wilson, it's also clear that Ron is an incurable romantic who wasn't made for these times. "Love is not some popular song/ filled with empty sentiment", he croons on "These Days." It may be a little harsh on the cheap thrills of chart fodder but hell, we all know what he means. Later, our host's heart-on-sleeve approach becomes more apparent still, when he switches to piano for a fine new ballad. "This goes out to my girlfriend", he says. At its close the audience's female contingent screams its approval but, tellingly, the male reaction is more measured.
There are moments when Sexsmith's guitar solos go a little awry. He also seems to baulk at the gorgeous falsetto note which normally surmounts the middle section of "Average Joe". Tipping its hat to the Beach Boys, the song still thrills, the crux of its everyman sentiment resting with a woman who has "made a king out of this ordinary Joe". Listening to it, you're reminded that Sexsmith knows exactly who he is, and exactly how he's perceived. In being no one but himself, moreover, he is creating a body of work that is built to last.