Ron Sexsmith – Westbeth Theater (New York City, NY)
While the real world is tough on outsiders, they’ll always be welcomed in the land of thinking-person’s music. Toronto troubadour Ron Sexsmith has perfected the outside-looking-in perspective; stuck in my head is an image from “Pretty Little Cemetery” off his latest album, Other Songs. He and his son are sitting on a bus, watching the scenery go by, quietly taking it in. Doesn’t seem like much on paper, but Sexsmith’s instinct for detail and observation makes for great, sad, folk-tinged pop.
Boyishly cherubic and fashionably scruffy, Sexsmith could be a grungy twist on Peanuts’ Linus. He has a sweet onstage demeanor; he was genuinely flattered by those in the crowd who yelled for back-catalog obscurities. Accompanying him were Other Songs co-producer Mitchell Froom, tinkering on keyboards; drummer Don Kerr, who proved he was as adroit with cello as he was with his small kit; and a bassist who held down fluid, fluent rhythms when not squeezing an accordion. Sexsmith’s vocals were languid, gently seductive; his guitar playing alternated between guileful fingerpicking and frisky riffing. Diversity ruled, as the quartet eased from folksy rambles (“Average Joe”) into somber mood pieces (“At Different Times”) and mildly distorted strum-pop.
While Sexsmith is every bit the classicist — on this night he worshipped at the altar of Dylan (“Love Minus Zero/No Limit”) and the kitchen-sink shrine of Ray Davies — he has plenty of his own mellow, twilight pop to draw on. The easy jangle of “Strawberry Blonde” contrasted with the downbeat “Thinking Out Loud”, while “Nothing Good” and “Honest Mistake” skillfully juggled golden melodies with rational, level-headed messages.
Maybe that’s why Sexsmith’s melancholia connects so well: He’s a regular Joe, singing about the everyday, articulating what we all feel but don’t quite know how to express. When he matches that with the understated beauty of his songs, he can’t go wrong.