Pop Live: The words have come out all wrong

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RON SEXSMITH's unaffected presence and sad, sensitive songs are stubbornly unfashionable attributes in these stylised times. Three albums into his major label deal the 37-year-old, baby-faced Canadian is heavily laden with critical plaudits and peer group endorsements - from Elton John, Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan, among others - but Joe Public has yet to rally round in career-sustaining numbers.

One suspects commercial success has never been this singer-songwriter's prime motivation. In performance his humane craft and forlorn insights demand an intimacy that's hard to find in the shrill rapid turnover of present-day pop - or the rowdy bonhomie of the Mean Fiddler's midweek crowd.

This quandary is confronted head on when the deceptively unassuming Ron takes the stage flanked by a bassist and drummer to play "Seem To Recall". Subtly merging favoured themes, nostalgia and melancholia, he skewers today's world with its "dumming (sic) down and talk shows". This is vintage Sexsmith - unearthing a sweet nugget, peppering it with a hint of subversion, his thin plaintive voice given wings by the gilded melody.

But the gleaming promise of this opening is only fitfully borne out in the rest of a set where his deferential, between-song comments bear witness to his often awkward delivery of the songs themselves.

Sexsmith has had long experience playing clubs and bars in Toronto, but the unashamedly dolorous cast of the material he's put together since his eponymous 1995 album, needs a painstaking, sympathetic setting. Tonight it wasn't just the noisy crowd that affected his equilibrium - the makeshift band struggled to provide a bridge between the solo troubadour and the fuller, more flamboyant accompaniment evident on his new album "Whereabouts".

Thus Sexsmith's vocal pitch - so affecting at a solo London show earlier in the year - often hovered and wavered uncertainly, failing to capture the vaudevillian black humour of "Idiot Boy", or the lambent piety of "Honest Mistake".

A sense of missed opportunity, acknowledgement of failure and a striving to make amends are constants in the Sexsmith song book, so there was a certain perversely poetic pleasure to be had from "Right About Now" - "I'm up here writing this song/But tonight the words have come out wrong".

He actually gelled best with his accompanists, however, when the tempo lifted - the light bossa nova skein given to "Different Time" and the ebullient bounce of "Feel For You". Even the discordant and crepuscular "So Young" evoked both a clammy sadness and unease. But gloom and despond hung over all, clouding even solo spots on the mighty "Galbraith Street" and the tragic "Strawberry Blonde".

At the close the pastoral grace of "Riverbed" and the restful ease of "There's A Rhythm" shone through, but the impression remained that, stuck in a frustrating format and plainly not finding the composure that serves him best, Sexsmith had undersold some of the most wondrous and finely etched creations in contemporary song. He owes it to himself to do better.

Ron Sexsmith plays the Fleadh at Finsbury Park tomorrow