Barely a mile and a half from the sight of that tragedy, and close enough for a pilgrimage to St Ann’s Square to pay our respects, my youngest daughter – on the eve of her 15th birthday – and I were truly entertained by an impressive all-Canadian bill.
While getting her first live taste of a singer-songwriter Dad’s played round the house and in the car longer than she’s been around, it was his second viewing, and far removed from the first at a jam-packed Adelphi pub in Preston 18 years earlier.
But as crisp and modern a venue as the RNCM is, those performances had a lot in common. However large the auditorium, it seems Ron can personalise the experience, giving it an intimate feel.
First time around, the wider world was only just waking up to this cherubic, shy guy from St Catharines, Ontario, with a little help from his famous fan, Elvis Costello. Much water’s passed down Twelve Mile Creek and the River Irwell since, yet Ronald Eldon Sexsmith still has that special air about him, coming over every bit the polite guest, so chuffed that we’ve come to see him.
That was particularly the case in the light of Monday’s grim happenings, although Ron conceded, ‘I guess that’s what we do – we have to get on with it’.
There was certainly a two-way outpouring of love between audience and performers off Oxford Road on Sunday, in a week when we needed just that, Lori respectfully talking of her own uptown visit to see the floral tributes.
She was half-way through a short set when we arrived, having stuck around the square until the church bells rang at 7pm. It didn’t help that we burst into the wrong recital room first, the pianist below us a little shocked at our presence. But we still had time to hear enough from Lori to suggest another Ontarian gem on the way to wider acclaim.
There’s due reverence for performers from the RNCM staff, and we casually waited until she’d finished a song before being escorted in the dark to our seats, Lori some distance away but introducing herself all the same with a breezy, ‘Hi I’m Support Band!’
Like Ron, she seemed nervous, but relaid a tale of having walked into another room within the RNCM and seeing a virtuoso pianist in action, making her realise the pressure was all on him, not her. She was ‘just a folk singer’, and no one was going to grade her that night. I wonder if it was the same fella we snooked in on.
Anyway, three songs later – with fitting accompaniment from Ron’s band – she was gone too soon, but we heard enough to invest in her seventh LP, 2016’s Sexsmith Swinghammer Songs, a set of fine tunes co-written by Our Ron and fellow Canadian singer-songwriter Kurt Swinghammer.
After two coffees and two Nutella muffins – yep, this was a rather sophisticated affair – we were back in our seats for the main-man, who launched straight into new LP The Last Rider’s opener, It Won’t Last For Long then the title track of his best-selling album to date, 2011’s Long Player Late Bloomer. And as I’d hoped, the songs from the latter sounded far less polished live, while the songs from the new one carried a little more meat, Ron’s complementary four-piece (and probably complimentary – they are friendly Canadians after all) band working well with him, the arrangements kept fresh throughout.
A quirky yet majestic Breakfast Ethereal saw them truly warmed up before a contemplative but rootsy choice from Other Songs, Thinking Out Loud, now 20 years old, Ron his typical laidback but soulful self.
The Idiot Boy from 1999’s Whereabouts brought to mind a certain incompetent presidential kid in a candy store across his home border, and then came the first single from the new record, Ron proudly telling us Evergreen reached No.2 in the Irish charts.
Secret Heart was as chillingly good as I’d hoped, the first hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck moment, followed by a gorgeously-evocative If Only Avenue from the criminally under-sold Forever Endeavour. And from the same LP, our man’s best friend, St Bernard, told of an imaginary mate who also passes for his ‘spirit animal’. And I should point out at that stage that my daughter – unaware of that song’s sentiment – told me on the way home Ron reminded her of a dog, so willing was he to please an audience continually shouting requests, as if encouraging him to do tricks. We’d love a dog in our house, but if Ron reckons he wouldn’t have the space and time to keep a St Bernard, I’m not sure we could afford to keep him either.
We got a further flavour of his more excitable nature when he turned round before the next song and caught the slideshow, telling us, ‘I drew that!’ Then we were back to The Last Rider, reminiscing about the golden age ‘when the whole world was my Radio.’
At that point, Don Kerr (drums), Jason Mercer (bass), Dave Matheson (keyboards) and Kevin Lacroix (guitar) headed off, Ron joking that the next couple of songs were ‘too complex for them’, before playing a poignant Strawberry Blonde from ’97 and the equally thought-provoking new song Man at the Gate (1913).
Lori Cullen returned, Ron raising his game vocally to match her on Autumn Light, then staying at the piano for Tomorrow in Her Eyes, his heartfelt love song to wife Colleen. At one point he lost his way and got a little stressed out, but I’m sure we love him all the more for those moments. Besides, note-perfect is over-rated.
He was still apologising for ‘messing up’ while introducing a timely Worried Song from his latest LP, and part-way through that the band returned and we got my all-time Sexsmith fave, Lebanon, Tennessee, two decades old now but no less fresh and stirring.
There’s Gold in Them Hills answered another request, while between Late Bloomer’s Whatever It Takes and Get In Line there was pride as Ron told us his daughter loved new track Who We Are Right Now. He also told us he’d offered it to One Direction. I prefer Ron Direction personally, but think Rumer would do that justice. Maybe his people should meet her people.
Not About To Lose from 2004’s Retriever (yep, another dog-related opus) again showed Ron at his melodic best, the main set then ending with a wonderfully-nostalgic Deepens With Time from Forever Endeavour.
He returned though, starting his Feist co-write Brandy Alexander on his own, his band then reappearing for a Hall and Oates style handclap and backing vocal session before a philosophically-upbeat Dreams are Bigger (the yang to his Worried Song’s yin?) and 2001’s delightfully-wistful Tell Me Again saw the night complete.
Our special guests took a collective bow then headed off then, Terry the Mod no doubt having already faced the bus towards the North-East. But when Ron told us he’d see us soon I like to think The Next Rider tour’s not so far off after all. And I’m already looking forward to that.
For this website’s recent feature/interview with Ron Sexsmith, head here.