When you listen to the music of Canadian recording artist and multi-Juno Award winner, Ron Sexsmith, be prepared to slow down your life for a moment, and slip into a world of easy-paced melodies and earnestly written songs you’ll find yourself quickly identifying with. His natural songwriting ability has earned him a long list of accolades and tips of the hat by many other celebrity artists, some who have sought his collaborative efforts, and others who have covered his work. For the listener, he’ll lead you down a private path that lives inside us all, with words that reflect the yearning of truth, love, and life’s moments and changing tides that can slip under the skin of the heart and mind. His songs move through well-written, easy listening, and catchy melodies in genres of folk/rock and country, musical surprises of chord and rhythm changes in every song, lovely layers of instruments, and lyrics based on anything that happens to catch his attention.
“The topics come from ideas I collect…you need a variety, and I try to honour every idea and give it the time of day. It seems silly, but suddenly it unfolds into something more than meets the eye…”
Ron Sexsmith, along with his supreme 4-piece band gave a captivating performance in front of a near sold out crowd inside the marvellously warm acoustics of Ottawa’s NAC Theatre this past Saturday night. The show marked the final stop on this leg of the tour, which swept across Ontario this past week, and will resume next month throughout the U.S. The tour is a two-fold celebration, first, to commemorate the newest release of his 14th album, “Carousel One” (Compass Records, distributed by Warner Music Canada), and second, to pay homage to the 20th anniversary of his self-titled debut album in 1995. In a recent interview, I asked him about the origin of the new album’s title, Carousel One, which refers to one of the baggage carousels at LAX that services flights arriving from Canada:
“I made a lot of records in California. Whenever I’d arrive, I’d head straight for Carousel One…so I spent a lot of time waiting there, and the name was always in the back of my head. When we couldn’t go with the title we originally selected for the album due to some legal issues, the name resurfaced and I wrote it on the wall at the top of the list of songs we were working on in the studio. Everything seemed to point to it. It doesn’t single out any particular song, and there’s something mysterious about it. After awhile, it just stuck…”
Tonight, Ron Sexsmith highlighted a good deal of his new material, and featured some of the gems of his past. He made his entrance onto the stage, took his stance front and center, and serenaded the audience with his acoustic guitar, and the accompaniment of pianist/keyboardist, Dave Matheson. The rest of the band kicked into full swing for the tongue-in-cheek frivolity of “Getaway Car” (Carousel One – 2015), which travelled through a lazy-winding melody that took an enchanting Beatlesque turn during the bridge. Great lead work by Kevin Lacroix, whose added fuzz guitar tones also lent to the song’s retro feel.
At this time, Sexsmith addressed the crowd in jovial spirits, and light-heartedly excused himself for some possible setbacks his voice might have, due to having performed every night of the past week. They continued with the soft flowing and pensive, “Nothing Feels The Same Anymore” (Carousel One), which he had forewarned, contained some high reaching notes. If there was any indication of wear and tear on the vocal chords, it certainly didn’t show. In fact, the slight edge brought a subtle smoky resonance, which further enhanced the melancholy timbre of his voice. I loved the song’s starts and stops, great vocal harmonies, and the very George Harrison-like guitar tones.
“Nothing Feels The Same Anymore”, is an introspective song, but humorous too. I had to be 50 to write that one…to have seen the changes I’ve seen. It stemmed from hearing these commercials today using songs to sell a product…as if that’s the only way we can vie for attention. It just made me wonder, what happened? There used to be a natural excitement to hear the artist’s material…it’s changed so much. I guess the modern world sometimes bothers me a little.”
The search to understand and harnass the complicated throes of love in, “Words We Never Use” (Ron Sexsmith – 1995), time warped us back 20 years, to his debut album, then jumped ahead a decade with, “Imaginary Friends” (Retriever – 2004), a song that tells a tale of true versus fair-weathered friendships in an easy, medium-tempoed beat. Lovely guitar textures, subtle harmonies, and gorgeous piano fills by Matheson, added to its soothing and velvety dynamics.
Attention turned to the larger-than-life cutout of a St. Bernard dog on the stage before the song of the same name began. “As far as I know, no one’s written a song about a St. Bernard yet, so it was up to me to write one.” Sexsmith’s voice rang out in this whimsical piece from his latest release, and blended nicely with the harmony vocals of longtime drummer of 28 years, Don Kerr. I could see bodies swaying in their seats to its easy flowing melody.
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“Nowhere To Go But Down” (Forever Endeavour – 2013) offered a melancholy introspective on the pangs of depression, but whose lyrics and pretty melody delivered such a topic with a tranquil, almost therapeutic quality. “Strawberry Blonde” (Other Songs – 1987), brought about cheers of recognition as its wistful and winding music wove through a story of a young and lonely girl from around the corner.
More from Carousel One came with the country rocking beat of “Can’t Get My Act Together”, that flowed from minor chord verses to major chord choruses, and was followed by the great toe-tapping pace of “Before The Light Is Gone”.
Sexsmith was then left alone onstage for one of his earliest songwriting efforts, “Speaking With The Angel” (Grand Opera Lane – 1991, Ron Sexsmith – 1995), a song which he explained, opened the door for him, and eventually led to his first contract with a major label in 1995. Gorgeous guitar chords wrapped around an impossibly beautiful melody, combined with the hypnotic drone of his voice, drew the audience into complete silence. Later in the show, another would have a similar effect on me with, “Secret Heart” (Ron Sexsmith – 1995), whose opening chords brought about immediate applause. Gentle brush strokes, an exquisite acoustic guitar solo sprinkled with piano, vocal harmonies, and delicate rhythm changes, gave this classic masterpiece its bewitching charm.
He moved to the Steinway to play the next few pieces, with more thoughtful words of, “Gold In Them Hills” (Cobblestone Runway – 2002), to “Brandy Alexander” (Exit Strategy Of The Soul – 2008), a lively, upbeat tune he co-wrote with Leslie Feist. Near the end of the song, the band members made their way back onto the stage, and a little barbershop action around the mic ensued to the delight of the crowd, while Kerr played some minimal backbeats.
The return to the full band sound proceeded with “Sun’s Coming Out” (Carousel One), which moved along in its lush and happy pace, and featured a great grooving bass line by Jason Mercer on the bridge, followed by the ringing tones of electric guitar and organ on the solo. Kerr started off the next tune with some latin flavoured beats that set the tropical element in “Lucky Penny” (Carousel One), which Sexsmith dedicated to his wife, Colleen. And as always, another signature twist into the bridge gave the song its delicious spice.
Sexsmith began the show’s closure with the sassy, “Get In Line” (Long Player Late Bloomer – 2011), followed by the richly instrumental, “Whatever It Takes” (Retriever – 2004), and its wonderful jazzy/pop progressions. This one spotlighted some call-and-answer vocals, along with some nice string synth fills.
After band member introductions, they finished with the inspirational, “Sure As The Sky” (Carousel One), a tastefully catchy piece right from the start. It featured classical-edged interludes, accented with harpsichord arpeggios, that added a playful spark to the song.
After a rousing standing ovation, Sexsmith and his band returned to the stage, “realizing they did, in fact, know two more songs“. “Former Glory” (Cobblestone Runway – 2002), was played as a request from an audience member earlier in the evening, and again, its instant recognition spurned on another burst of applause. I loved the uplifting lyrics and more of Sexsmith’s truly accomplished guitar playing.
And finally, the band wrapped up the night with “You Drive A Hard Bargain” (Retriever – 2004), that bore a soft rock/latin feel, with instruments going full tilt, and a great driving rhythm that created the song’s rich tones. Short solo rushes of guitar, then piano, flowed smoothly from one into the other in a seamless transition, followed by an alternate of strong and softly played parts. After the band said their humble thank yous to a second standing ovation, the audience awoke from its calm oblivian, where for a little while, we were immersed in the comforting tones and stories of life through the eyes, the music, and the words of Ron Sexsmith.
Carousel One is available on iTunes, Amazon, or at Ron’s webstore http://www.kt8merch.com/store/pages/ronsexsmith