When the Ron Sexsmith shows were announced a few months ago for the intimate 198-seat LSPU Hall in St. John’s, Newfoundland, my first thought was that he’d easily be able to fill the larger 1100-seat Holy Heart Theatre. But this move is classic Sexsmith: underestimating himself, unsure of his reach, full of self-doubt. Any doubts, however, about demand in St. John’s were quickly dispelled, as the first two shows sold out almost immediately with a third added and sold out shortly thereafter.
Being a huge Sexsmith fan, I’d gone online the first day and bought tickets. This is a compulsory show for me. Being a songwriter myself, there are very few who can keep me transfixed for long when performing solo acoustic. It’s kind of like an electrician watching another electrician wire a house. It can get boring fast when you know the tricks of the trade. But Sexsmith’s genius for lyric and melody separate him from mere songwriting mortals; simply put, he’s one of the best. You don’t get invited to Paul McCartney’s house for being a mediocre songwriter. Sexsmith’s talent has afforded him a seat at the table of greatness, but the reality is he still needs to make a living. So he tours. And the capacity-audience at the LSPU Hall was more than happy to reap the benefits of this need, as he performed selections from his outstanding catalogue with impeccable style and grace.
Opening the show was Scottish singer/songwriter Rachel Sermanni, who came out a little after 8pm and started her first song with the house lights still up and people still being seated. It took the venue a song or two to settle down and concentrate on Sermanni, whose voice and creative finger picking style are unique. She tends toward improvisation both in her singing and playing, which makes for an entertaining delivery. Her vocal range goes from low growls to soaring highs (sometimes in a split second), and behind her somewhat shy demeanor you could detect a tentative sense of confidence that only a talent in its initial stages of growth can convey. However, the 21-year-old (who’s also opened for Elvis Costello) was not running a tuner with her guitar. Therefore, she spent most of her half-hour set tweaking the keys on her Martin D18, even going to the piano at one point to search for a reference note. She asked the audience if there were any music stores in town where she could buy a tuner. I couldn’t help but think to myself, “How can you get an opening slot for Ron Sexsmith and not have a tuner with you?” But I’m sure I was more keenly aware of this than others, and the people milling about the merch table shaking her hand and buying her CD on the break didn’t seem to detect any fault with her set. Her performances will no doubt sharpen as she develops a sense of authority on stage. In the meantime, I bet she’s out shopping for a tuner today.
After a short intermission, Sexsmith came out to a roar of applause. Resplendent in a frilly blue tuxedo shirt and matching suit jacket, he was all business as he plugged in and checked his tuning. The consummate seasoned pro, he directly launched into three songs in quick succession before taking a moment to apologize for a sore throat on his last gig here at the Majestic Theatre that prevented him from being true to some of his trademark melodies. (No one at that show seemed to mind the throat problems, however, because Sexsmith’s talent allowed him to simply pick new melodies out of the air that his voice could accommodate.)
Sexsmith’s 90-minute show featured a wide variety of songs spanning his career from the mid-90s to today. Highlights were the snappy “Get in Line” from Long Player, Late Bloomer (which Sexsmith announced as being a hit in England on one of the BBC charts), “Snake Road” from Forever Endeavour (which has a chorus melody borrowed straight from the Beatles’ “She’s a Woman”), and a trio of lovely tunes played expertly on the Hall’s old upright piano: “Gold in Them Hills,” “This is How I know,” and “Secret Heart.” Ever the modest soul, Sexsmith apologized for his perceived piano shortcomings, and he also omitted the details about Coldplay’s Chris Martin having done a guest vocal on the first tune and Rod Stewart having covered the last. This modest and self-deprecating performance style has inadvertently become Sexsmith’s trademark. Fans love it – responding with laughter at his ridiculously humble statements, giggling at his endearingly awkward gestures, and supporting with applause his announcements regarding career success.
One fascinating aspect of Sexsmith’s musical style is his fingerpicking. Seemingly the result of having to accompany himself solo for thousands of shows since he began performing in the late ‘80s, he has created a form of picking that strums while plucking snippets of the song melody. He doesn’t use picks, opting for a louder guitar volume that can properly amplify his fingerpicking subtleties. When you watch his picking hand, however, it is like an optical illusion. Melodies are coming out of the guitar but you can’t see his right hand creating them. These little things are what I love about Sexsmith. He is a creative genius but also an incredibly profound musician who is keenly aware of every minute detail musically. He takes the craft very seriously, knowing that pure emotion is not enough. This separates him from some of his peers who rely too much on either the art or the craft. Sexsmith understands the importance of a lyric cutting to the quick while also realizing that a unifying chorus is paramount over all other things in a pop song. In this way, he is the perfect amalgam of the Beatles and Bob Dylan. It’s easy to tell that his influences are prime, deeply instilled from a lifetime of studying the greats while slowly developing his own unique greatness.
Sound-wise the vocals, guitar, and piano were expertly mixed, with the sound tech providing the proper levels of reverb and delay to match particular songs. However, the lighting did not reach the full potential of the venue’s varied and fairly intricate setup. For much of the show, Sexsmith’s face was shrouded in orange light and darker hues. With only one performer on which to concentrate, the lighting tech had the opportunity to create beautiful settings that accentuated the performance. A simple white follow spot as he came on and off the stage would have been a great visual addition to the show, as would more front lighting and a possibly even some foot lights. This, however, did not take away from the show one bit; Sexsmith could have sang in the dark and the audience would have been thrilled.
With two more nights left at the Hall, I’m confident that 400 more lucky people in St. John’s will have their weekend enriched by one of country’s most talented exports. And if you missed the boat on tickets this time, do yourself a favour and make sure you’re first in line next time Ron Sexsmith decides to make the trip across the Gulf.