“It wasn’t even on my list of dreams,” gushes Ronald Eldon Sexsmith, to play the Royal Albert Hall. The entire lower level of one of the Empire’s most imposing venues is full of admirers, and professional songwriters, paying top whack to see one of the world’s most beloved (“cult”, he labels it) writers of song. It’s like a Royal Academy piano graduate going to see Lang Lang, or a touring comic going to see Jerry Seinfeld; the very good watching the best.
Superlatives are only natural with Ron Sexsmith. 50 next year, and a father of grown-up children, he has put in his ten thousand hours of writing, touring and playing guitar, and so is a perfect fit for a venue that hosts the Proms as he plugs the well-titled Forever Endeavour album (Canadian spelling).
For just shy of two hours, Ron and his four long-standing cohorts play the tightest of sets. No song overstays its welcome; several gain applause to which Ron nods politely when his crowd acknowledge the songs they’ve paid to hear. Ron is a polite, unassuming host. He has to be on his best behaviour: Mr and Mrs Sexsmith are over from Canada and watching from the back of the hall. The priceless pride in seeing their son gain a standing ovation for something he has spent his adult life doing can’t equate to a five-star review from a critic.
Nor can royalties. Ron’s first real hit, he says, came in 2011. Get In Line, the toe-tapping opening cut of the Long Player, Late Bloomer LP, is one of the standouts in a set which is full of them. Ron’s canon is a collection of modern pop-rock standards, where each one feels like your new favourite song. He tosses them away like a philanthropist giving away his millions: Tell Me Again, Love Shines, Believe it When I See It. In a fairer world, these would be the hits of the age. Gold in Them Hills was remixed with Chris Martin doing a verse, and Whatever It Takes was covered by Michael Buble, with Ron on harmonies. The track featured on Crazy Love, Buble’s nine-times Platinum album. “It made my publisher happy!” Ron grins. Sometimes people have the cheek to turn down his songs, so Ron puts them on his own records and wraps his tenor’s tones around it.
There’s a Rhythm, dedicated to a fan who was absent through illness, was written for his self-titled 1995 album, which opened with ‘Secret Heart’ which he played at the piano. Prince boasts in his live shows that he “just got too many hits!” Ron has too many never-hits, mostly about adult themes like relationships or hindsight, such as the tender new song ‘If Only Avenue’.
He omitted Just My Heart Talking, the one he debuted on Jools Holland’s show in 2001, which came from an album produced by Steve Earle (credited with “history lessons” in the cast list on the album). Speaking to the Guardian recently, he spoke of how he found lyrics harder to write than melodies, especially in the mould of Cold Porter, “where there’s no wasted words.”
Leaving the gig, aside from marvelling at how Sexsmith never wastes a syllable of lyric or bar of music, you are struck by two other things: the musicianship, best shown in the harmonies of Me Myself and Wine and the extended outro on Snake Road, both tracks from the new record; but also Ron’s place in the lineage of songwriting. Online endorsements came from Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake and the Barking bard, Billy Bragg. Kristina Train, who played a half-hour support set, told of how excited she was to be opening for an artist whom she so admired, whose Retriever record had once soundtracked the entirety of a five-hour road trip; likewise, Ron’s night was capped by the present left before the show by Gilbert O’Sullivan.
If someone in the audience has been inspired by Ron or Kristina, Ron’s efforts are worth it.
Ron Sexsmith returns to the UK in June, the week before Glastonbury, to play Birmingham, Glasgow, Gateshead, Manchester and Brighton. Forever Endeavour is out now on Cooking Vinyl.