Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Musician Revitalized: Ron Sexsmith at the River Run Centre, Guelph (Oct. 21, 2011)

Singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith

Let’s get something out in the open right away, I’m a big fan of Canadian songwriter Ron Sexsmith. I’ve seen him live a dozen times, bought all his CDs, including various artist collections on which he only has one tune. I was also privileged to be invited to the taping of his episode of Beautiful Noise (a made-for-cable music show).

Friday night in Guelph we were in the presence of a different Ron Sexsmith. I last saw him in Hamilton’s Studio Theatre, an intimate venue with table seating. He was just starting to get the reviews for his new album Long Player, Late Bloomer, and the documentary, Love Shines, was just starting to be shown at festivals. It was April. Sexsmith had added a pianist to his band, and was playing Hamilton, then being feted at Massey Hall, before leaving for a European tour. He seemed tentative. He had a cold and it marked some of his vocals. The news had come out that Sexsmith had been considering getting out of the business. Although he bravely soldiered on, and gave us a fine show, his confidence was shaky. You can hear this show on CBC’s web site.

Last weekend in Guelph, however, he was a changed man.

The band had changed a bit: Tim Bovaconti (his regular guitarist) couldn’t make this gig, so he went without a lead guitar; old pal Don Kerr was back behind the drum kit; Dave Matthewson played piano; and Jason Mercer was on bass. With Ron’s sparkling finger-picked guitar out front, it was just the right mix for an intimate evening of music. A couple tunes from the new album were tossed in here and there, but this was essentially a career overview.

“Hands of Time,” “Get In Line,” “Thinking Out Loud,” set the stage for “Hard Bargain” which Emmylou Harris covered on her latest album. He did the co-written-with-Feist “Brandy Alexander” after explaining how it had come to be, and giving credit to John Lennon and Harry Nilsson for inspiring it (after their notorious drunken episode on the beverage at the Troubadour Club in 1974 during Lennon's "Lost Weekend"). He sang “Gold In Them Hills” with Don Kerr replacing Coldplay’s Chris Martin on harmonies. Kerr’s voice blends beautifully with Ron’s, and his presence allowed the duo to sing “One Less Shadow” from the album they made together of songs that didn’t make the cut for 2004’s Retriever. Together they’re like Canada’s answer to the Everly Brothers.

There were a couple false starts as Ron kicked off different songs than were on the set list, but the band knows the whole Sexsmith songbook, and were able to pick up quickly. This casual approach adds to the enjoyment of a Sexsmith show. He covered “Song for a Winter’s Night” by his hero Gordon Lightfoot. I’ve seen him surprise the crowd by doing Beatles songs, or a tune by Elton John. The surprises extend even into the encores. Traditionally encores are saved for the artists’ biggest hit(s), but Ron throws a curveball. He listens to the song titles tossed out by the audience and chooses a couple…”Okay, we’ll do that one, and that one and finish with…” The fans love him. That’s why they go to show after show. Quality songs, beautifully played (even when he has a cold).

Perhaps, though, the biggest surprise of the night was the opening act, Colleen Hixenbaugh. She’s Ron’s wife, and can usually be seen managing Ron’s merch counter, knitting; but she used to play guitar with By Divine Right, and she’s been writing songs of her own lately, and recording with friend Paul Linklater. She performed a five-song set, with Don Kerr on brushes and backup vocals. She was charming, and the CD is fine too. After her brief set, she quickly changed her dress, and took up her station selling T-shirts and CDs. This time, Colleen & Paul CDs and knitted hats were also available.

Ron Sexsmith is one of Canada’s finest writers. His CDs are always wonderfully crafted pieces of art. His concerts are warm, like sitting in a rather large living-room listening to a friend. The River Run Centre in Guelph, Ontario is a perfect venue in which to stretch out.

David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas with his wife.

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