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Ron Sexsmith - The Marquee Club, London on 5 December 2002
I have already received everything I could possibly want for Christmas this year, and December has only just begun. Last week, I got to enjoy the party atmosphere of a Jools Holland and His Rhythm and Blues Orchestra concert at the Royal Albert Hall, the venue where I first saw Ron Sexsmith when he opened for Elvis Costello some years ago. Last night, I got to see Ron himself play to about 400 MOJO-aged people in the three-month old Marquee Club, which boasts that it is the first purpose-built, digitally enabled, live music venue in the UK. Those assets meant that the optimum quality of the songs and the equally stunning performance were greatly enhanced by the fabulous sound system, said to be one of the top five in London, and the incredibly polished light show.
If Santa decides that I haven’t behaved well enough to deserve a visit on the 25th, I really won’t mind, as nothing could top the joy I’ve experienced in these two recent gifts courtesy of Mr Holland—-a master of swathing the masses in a feel-good party atmosphere----and Mr Sexsmith, a master full stop.
The Marquee Club in Islington is the phoenix rising from the long cold ashes of the original cramped and dirty club of that name in Soho. The new, exquisitely designed club is owned by people who know what they’re doing: Eurythmic Dave Stewart and Sugar Reef and Embassy club owner Mark Fuller. Ron now joins the likes of Jimmy Hendrix, the Who, the Rolling Stones and the Sex Pistols by having performed in front of those famous orange lower-cased letters, ‘marquee.’ Many of those artists had their careers launched at the Marquee Club. Ron’s been in the business a while, but his immaculate performance of what could easily have been an impressive list of greatest hits and amazingly touching, thought-provoking newer material would surely have been enough to launch his career and fire it to the top of the charts, were there any justice in this world. Mind you, with the exception of David Gray and Jools, the charts these days are hardly something to aspire to, whereas critical acclaim, which always surrounds Ron, is a much more remarkable achievement.
We were introduced to the evening by support band Clarkesville, three stylishly dishevelled young men whose likeable tunes often disappeared into loud, banging guitars, which meant that they weren’t really my scene but were simply the height of fashion, perhaps needing a bit more experience before they attract more attention. They knew how to enjoy themselves, and the lead singer even reminded me of John Lennon when he welcomed the people in the privileged seats---referring to the Marquee lounge in the balcony, a spacious gallery with a few comfy seats overlooking the stage above the cram-them-in main floor. Of course, that echoed Lennon’s comment about people in the balcony rattling their jewellery. Clarkesville were too noisy for me, which means they should go far, and they clearly went down rather well with the audience, as they perhaps appealed to those who liked the rocking-out Ron tracks.
But we didn’t get to those right away. Ron led us in gently with a new track, UP THE ROAD, when he took the compact stage just past 9pm with his three-strong band of merry men. They were all dressed in uniform, black shirts with stripes and charcoal grey suits, which added to the anticipation that this would be a truly dynamic evening. Upon reaching his microphone, Ron placed his feet awkwardly apart, one well in front of the other, as if deliberately trying to stretch to reach an unnatural mark blocked out for him in a play. I later came to see this as his "go-get-‘em" stance, and he eased into a more natural position as he began to sing. A brave way to start a show, this fine track on the album was rather overshadowed, I felt, by the rest of the slightly bolder and more purposeful songs. Despite finding its refreshing rhythm and simplicity appealing when I first heard it, I hadn’t really given this song enough thought until I heard it live. It’s actually a terrifically warm and endearing song. The only thing that slightly marred the performance was at the very start when the punters near the stage objected to the bright backlighting, which perhaps was rather blinding for those at floor level, so they shouted out ‘LIGHTS! LIGHTS!’ when Ron started singing, which seemed to puzzle him as he can’t have known what they were going on about, and he tried to carry on as though uninterrupted. But I know the Marquee is impressively professional so the lights would have changed to another sequence right away, as they busily travelled through their programmes throughout the night, looking spectacular. In any case, it seemed rude to shout over Ron’s clear, exquisite singing as soon as he arrived.
Guitarist Tim Bovaconti, who still reminds me of a skinny version of actor David Keith from An Officer and A Gentleman, frequently used the guitar pedal encased in a busy box of electrical equipment that was the size of a dining room table, whilst occasionally stowing his plectrum in his mouth. Drummer Don Kerr still looks like the kid from Third Rock from the Sun with his boyish bob. They were joined by new bassist Jason Mercer, who had an Elvis Costello face and spectacles but longer fringey hair, heavy on the sideboards. He made me think of a character in those 1960s Disney films that usually starred Dean Jones, where a Jason type would play the loveable almost-nerd with a goatee, probably a jazz fanatic, like an intelligent live action version of the animated Jug Head. Ron, as always, looked a sweet 16.
The room filled with enthusiastic cheers when they finished that first track, and Ron introduced Tim before leading us into the bright and catchy HEART’S DESIRE, also from the latest album. These songs were, of course, played by the basic instruments on stage, so they were all the organic version of their album equivalents, with no futuristic sound effects or wandering codas. That threw a new light on the songs that perhaps led me to give them more consideration, and I preferred this abbreviated version of the song, cropped to the catchy part without the long, distracting raunchy guitar at the end that appears on the album. Admirably, Ron never felt the need to pad out the evening with 10 minute guitar solos; he instead filled the time with more and more marvellous songs. Tim, also providing backing vocals, did play a brief guitar solo in the middle of the song that sounded great and welded well together with the busy and brilliant light show. At the end of that number, over our thrilled cheers, Ron introduced Jason as his new bassist.
Rather bravely for the start of a live show, Ron stuck with the new album, wondering aloud whether we’d had the chance to listen to it yet and saying that he had a ‘bit of a double duty’ here when starting the next song, DISAPPEARING ACT. With his electric guitar strapped over his shoulder, Ron sat at the piano in the middle of the stage and started off the eminently memorable piano riff, then rose from the bench and left the programming to carry on with the piano duties. He then took on vocals, singing ‘Some say you’ve got to lose to win, Any moment now, our luck will stumble in.’ and continued with the guitar. The three band members, looking terribly smart in their stage outfits, provided suave Beatleseque backing vocals, and Ron occasionally needed to cup his right hand over that ear to ensure that he was in tune, which he always was. Beside the piano stood a chair holding a cluster of five cups of water (if not vodka, but they looked more innocent), but Ron barely touched them all evening, so I guess his talents come so naturally that it isn’t thirsty work. The smooth sound of this performance of the song surpassed that on the CD, assisted greatly by the incomparable sound system at the club, managed by engineers at a sound board the size of a Morris Minor. At the end of this wonderful track, Ron finished the presentation of the troupe by introducing Don Kerr on drums
The next song began with an impressive effect as the stage was left in total darkness, not through a blown fuse but a clever light show, as Ron began the vocals for CHEAP HOTEL. As the lights came up slowly, they revealed Ron really delivering this song with a concentrated passion in both his face and voice. The song seemed to be more suitably raw without the organ of the album version and gave us the chance to listen more carefully to Ron sing this clever depiction of a woman escaping from domestic violence. Tim, like a rebellious student expressing his own identity despite the school uniform, was wearing a yellow badge on his lapel, but I could not see what it said. He provided a bit of impressive fingerpicking on his guitar in the middle of the song, and Ron joined him in doing so on his guitar for a bit, but these solos were always quick and far between.
Needless to say, the crowd was thrilled with the song and let Ron know it at the end. Nevertheless, Ron felt the need to ask outright how he and the band were doing so far. He explained that this evening was the last night of their tour, and that it had been nice to get a few shows under their belt beforehand because ‘London’s so stressful, you know,’ which was greeted with understanding cheers, although I hope we didn’t stress him out tonight. He mumbled, ‘Here’s a song you may recall,’ and the backing boys then led with a co-ordinated, harmonising 50s style ‘Oooooooh’ all together. Methinks the roar from the crowd as Ron sang the first line meant that they did indeed recall the exquisite SECRET HEART. The first song of his first album, if we discount Grand Opera Lane as is common to do, it truly is the most understated classic, conveying a heartfelt, touching message to some unknown friend, if not oneself. This is a song that easily ropes people in whenever I introduce them to Ron’s music; no one can resist its brilliant simplicity. Ron’s skill in writing this song and performing it in his characteristic vocals that sound like they’re shaking with emotion makes me think of ice skaters. An odd comparison, perhaps, but ice skating looks so simple, so poetic, just gliding easily across the ice, twirling beautifully a few times and landing perfectly on one’s feet. But it takes years of hard athletic work to achieve that appearance. Ron makes this song look so easy that it makes you wonder why it hasn’t been written a million times before. But it hasn’t been, because it isn’t that easy. Anyone else venturing out ‘on the ice’ in this way would slip and fall hard on their bums, probably to great guffaws of laughter. If I’d written it, it would sound more like encouragement for stalkers rather than a torturous conversation that we’ve all had with ourselves at some point when trying to drum up courage that could possibly change our lives for the better.
This rendition of the perfect tune was more special than ever. Ron started on his own, just playing electric guitar, and the others joined in with the second verse, with Jason playing his slim (I assume Clevinger) electric upright bass. After the marvellously insistent ‘Go tell her how you feel’ line, Ron said ‘This is for George Harrison’ and launched with astonishing grace into that sterling guitar solo from Harrison’s song Something. This thoughtful tribute and absolutely glorious feat stunned us into silence, until that was overtaken by a mad roar of incredible delight and appreciation. Ron is generally so self-effacing and subdued that it’s easy to forget that he’s actually an enormously talented guitarist in addition to all his many more evident superlative skills, like songwriting. Since Something was not only said by John Lennon to be the best song on Abbey Road, but also described by Frank Sinatra at the end of the 1960s as the greatest love song of the past 50 years, this small piece of it fit perfectly into this great song about love by the new luminary, Ron Sexmith. Ron was clearly a big fan of George Harrison. I remember the tribute he paid to him this time last year at the Union Chapel, playing a cheering I Need You five days after Harrison’s death.
All this skill combined with the smooth backing vocal arrangement made me almost wish the truly perfect song would never end, but that would have deprived us of another 25 gems, so I coped admirably as Ron drew the song to a close. As he did so, he looked up and noticed for the first time that there were people in the gallery above the main floor, and he remarked to us, ‘My hair must look pretty dumb from up there.’ Creative thinking, but an incorrect deduction. I know millions of men around the world would view Ron’s extremely full head of hair with a dangerous envy.
From the first song of his first album, Ron moved to the first song of his second album, THINKING OUT LOUD. Most people, at this stage, were completely transfixed by Ron, and cheered heartily when they recognised the first line of this marvellous tune. However, I was quite shocked by the level of chatter seeping through the venue, even during the quieter songs. Yet, having looked around at all the various people on the floor below, I feel confident in saying that it was just the combined sound of several hundred people commenting quickly to each other on the brilliance of the performer before them, and probably saying such things as, ‘Oh this one is my favourite!’ I hope that, if Ron was aware of this constant vocal rattle, he grasped the explanation.
There was, sadly, one exception beside us upstairs. I can understand that, in a gallery mainly reserved for guests of the artists and the like, it might well be filled with people who take for granted seeing and hearing this outstanding performer every night, so they could be forgiven for sitting back in the comfortable seating area that had no view of the stage other than through monitors, and drinking and having a bit of a hushed natter. But bizarrely, three young people pushed their way to the front and leaned over the rails that protected Ron and Tim from having us fall on them, and then talked incessantly, often having to shout above that annoying din that kept coming from the stage, interfering with their conversation. If you people are on this list, I will not say that I mean no offence nor will I apologise for singling you out for a flogging. Your behaviour was baffling and rude. Fortunately, the sound system at the Marquee was so wonderful that I could still just about hear the performance over their constant shouting. But my great concern was for Ron. He plays so many quiet songs, I was ever so worried what his impression would be of an audience where people were audibly shouting to be heard above him. I would not be at all surprised if he walked off the stage at the end of the show thinking that it had been a bad gig with an unappreciative audience he did not reach. I hope, however, that our booming cheers at the beginning and end of each sensational song quashed any concerns he might have had, and let him ignore the loud and rude minority who seemed to forget that they weren’t in their front room playing the stereo.
Now returning from my raging rant to the fabulous show itself, this soft, gently lovely number again warmed the room. Another excellent example of Ron’s skill for subtle understatement, Thinking Out Loud touches on that common theme of finding that your relationship is going wrong and not quite having the magic solution to change things. But you could hardly imagine Tina Turner covering the song, for instance, or Elvis Presley belting it out as he did with the similarly themed Suspicious Minds. Only Ron could pull this off, and he did so brilliantly.
The song also gave Don the chance to demonstrate that he clearly belongs to that group of people who can pat their head and give their stomach a circular rub at the same time. No, he didn’t quite do that on stage, but he played drums with one stick and added rhythm with a shaker in the other hand. Not quite as demanding a skill as last year’s hi-hat/Bodhrán combination, but still more than I could ever manage at one time.
Ron then told us that they were going to return to the new record and perform the new single, THESE DAYS. He said that they had actually made a video for it, and then he pulled off a stupendously smooth manoeuvre upon saying ‘it goes kinda like this’ and pointing at Don, without pause, who was instantly jolted into starting his soulful part, a bit like the beginning of Unchained Melody. Then like clockwork, all the guys joined in with their fabulously polished backing vocals of the ‘oooo’ and ‘do-wop’ variety. I felt like I was watching the Four Tops for the first time in their heyday; it was amazing. Without the distractions of the sound effects one meets up with on the album—--which, incidentally, is terribly modern and all the rage, as employed by Elvis Costello, David Gray and Pete Gabriel, for starters, on their new albums----the song in its organic form was even more gripping, full of ‘wow power’.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed this song upon the first listen of Cobblestone Runway, it wasn’t my favourite on the album, and it didn’t leap out at me as something as special as it is. I must admit that the whole evening elevated the new songs in my mind, which is exactly what tours are meant to do. We fans sometimes think the point of artists touring is to enable us to see them so we can hear our favourite songs from the past. But the purpose of touring, of course----unless you are doing a nostalgic greatest hits reunion tour, as many 80s acts are, uh, these days----is to promote the new material. James Taylor was fairly blunt about that in a wry and fun way when I saw him recently in London, as he almost apologised when introducing another song from his new album, and openly said he knew the audience hated when he didn’t dwell on his old songs and played the new ones, ‘but guess what: that’s why I’m here!’ So, I’m sure I can speak for everyone who was at the Marquee Club, except for the three by me who clearly loved Ron but for some reason paid him little attention, in declaring this tour a huge success in promoting the new album. It might not be topping the charts, but it really has impressed upon us that all the new songs, even those we’d overlooked, are the Strawberry Blondes of tomorrow. Now, when I hear mention of this title in future, I will never again think of the Brian Kennedy cover of a different song called These Days, which he later ruined by performing it as a soppy duet with Ronan Keating that practically included birdsong in the production. Silly boys, they should know that ‘love is not some popular song filled with empty sentiment’. Though, actually, I guess Ronan doesn’t know that.
Ron’s surprisingly passionate vocals exposed the true nature of such a superficially light-hearted number, which was brought to a close with Tim playing tambourine (not at the same time as guitar, but I don’t think that makes him a lesser man than Don). Ron then moved over to the piano and, when faced with the first line of the song he knew he was about to begin, DRAGONFLY ON BAY STREET, decided to sing similar words instead, to the tune of the introduction to that Karaoke favourite, I Will Survive. ‘Once I was a courier, I was petrified. I could never get my packages in on time,’ he sang, to much laughter. Then, as he started the programming on the piano, he announced ‘This is my disco song,’ which is probably not something you ever expected Ron Sexsmith to say, but then it shows off his versatility.
All sorts of quick electric sounds then burst into the club, with even Jason now on modern electric bass. I have to admit that this was my least favourite song on the album, though I still liked it, but I have a bias against that Starsky & Hutch wacca-wacca guitar sound that features in this track. I hear that and just can’t think straight so the rest of any song containing that just passes me over, I’m afraid. Most of the audience tried to get into this, and the band did a stellar job, including a lovely brief solo on the piano from Ron, but it seemed to be appreciated more as a novelty, although I suppose I could see it being played in clubs, and goodness knows it would be the one song I’d be up there dancing to if it were. Hey, the Marquee does have a club night and a disco mirror ball hanging from the ceiling, with the busy light show reflecting off it, so this song was certainly not out of place. The band clearly enjoyed it loads, and it did serve to punch some extra life into the set amongst the soft and gentle thoughtful numbers.
Intriguingly, Ron introduced the next song, FALLEN, as ‘probably the most romantic song I’ve ever written’, which I think would make an interesting debate to be put to the list. I am not disagreeing with him; I would have to give the matter some thought, but it wouldn’t have been my first choice. Even Wastin’ Time leaps to mind as an early contender, with a myriad close runners that deserve consideration. Perhaps this one means more to him, seeing as it’s recent, and thus most likely applies to his current love. In fact, Ron proceeded to dedicate it to his girlfriend, who was on tour with him, which must be why he clearly appeared to be so happy! He then seemed to be gripped with a bit of embarrassment over his own straightforward sentimentality, so he then added ‘and to all the gentlemen as well,’ which came across as being a bit odd. Perhaps he has a gay following that he didn’t want to disorient with his proclamation of love for his girlfriend.
Fallen is certainly one of the most striking songs on the Blue Boy album, elaborately adorned by a truly stunning cello arrangement, made all the more moving by the balance of Ron’s higher vocals on certain lines. Live, the band did not perform the track with a cello, but that omission cost it no beauty. Ron started alone on the piano, and Jason later joined in with his upright bass, with Don playing the cymbals with brushes—--interestingly at times with the handle side of the brushes. Tim intriguingly played an instrument that was a mystery to me until someone later enlightened me: it was an electronic autoharp. It looked a bit like a plastic child’s toy, cream coloured and the shape of an artist’s palette, which he played on his lap like a lap steel guitar. However, rather than having any strings, it had circular buttons that he pressed busily almost as though he were typing out a manuscript. It almost sounded like a lap steel, but fortunately created a softer, less whiny sound (I confess to another phobia: steel guitars, even more hated than wacca-wacca Starsky and Hutch ones).
The performance was phenomenally gorgeous, but was marred by one particularly noisy, unpleasant element. You will no doubt guess what that was when I tell you that my friend leaned over during this song and suggested in a whisper that I push that particular element over the edge of the balcony, and I had already been contemplating doing so, but didn’t want to hurt Ron by flinging three humans on top of him. It might have made him miss a perfect note, God forbid. But such beauty was not created to provide background to shouted conversation; that would have been evident even to the profoundly deaf.
I’ll withdraw my claws for half a second as we moved on to what Ron introduced as probably his favourite song off the new album, FOR A MOMENT. Tim played electric guitar while Ron played acoustic, and the bow that had been lingering in a pouch attached to Jason’s upright bass finally got to burst out to see some of the action. As Ron sang his heart out on a gentle song he had openly declared to be special to him, our heartless foes beside us bizarrely felt the need to shout and laugh louder than ever, and it took all our strength not to help them accidentally down to the lower level, if you know what I mean. I have seen Ron four times now, almost every time he has come to London since I thankfully discovered his brilliance when he opened for Elvis Costello years ago. His breathtaking performances leave me in awe of his ability, and I feel quite confident that, even if I saw his show every single night because I was a friend or manager or roadie or general hanger-on, I would never take his performance for granted. There are so many hours in the day when Ron is not playing live a few feet before you, that it seems surely possible to fit in any general chats you want to have with friends in that time. The odd ‘wasn’t that stunning!’ is acceptable, but I’m talking about something completely different. I’m sorry to go on and on and on about this, but The Endless Natterers were going on and on and on all evening and it was a real struggle to focus on the extraordinary men before us, which simply doesn’t seem just. I imagine I’ve made my point now though and I’ll try not to dwell on this intense irritation anymore, for the sake of anyone who has actually read this far.
So I won’t mention that it was partly to escape for a moment from this constant source of annoyance that my thirsty friend finally stood to grab a drink from the bar right behind us, but then he heard the introduction to the classic STRAWBERRY BLONDE and the excited cheer that followed, so he gave up on his pursuit and rushed back to his seat to give the song his full attention. In fact, it’s almost impossible to find a time to replenish one’s drink or powder one’s nose at a Ron concert, his growing repertoire is so huge and awe-inspiring. For this number, Tim switched to what I always call a Bill Haley electric guitar, Jason strapped on an electric bass guitar, Don provided backing vocals that perfectly complemented Ron’s, and they performed a mindblowing version of one of the most highly regarded songs that is mystifyingly not double platinum or in some Hall of Fame. It exemplifies Ron’s storytelling skills, turning a quiet observation into an elaborate painting of an unfortunate situation, somehow without using complicated expressions or stiff, ill-fitting words.
During the brief guitar solo in the middle, Tim and Ron got as close to rock ’n’ roll as they dared, facing each other and nodding to the beat, with Ron then resuming that almost awkward stance (fifth position in dance?), bending his knees a bit into a loveable, calmer Canadian version of Chuck Berry. When he got to the last verse, Ron continued singing whilst observing some sort of ruckus going on in front of him in the audience. I looked down to see people grabbing a big guy, who was holding his hands up as if to indicate that he was okay now, and I assumed there had been a fight. Then the big guy started swaying madly and what had just transpired became clear because he did it again—fainted, and fell to the ground, supported by a dozen hands of fellow fans who eased him to the floor. Ron admirably finished the song with all this commotion going on before him, and then Tim came to the mike and said that they needed ‘emergency’ for the man, whom Ron then pointed out had passed out twice, which indicated that he, too, had kept a close eye on the proceedings, whilst not wanting to spoil the evening for anyone else in the club by stopping the song. As the unconscious man was taken off the floor to get help, someone behind me upstairs boomed, ‘Is he from Chicago?!’ which must have been some sort of in-joke, but Tim and Ron didn’t smile at all; they remained looking very concerned about the chap who was being carted off. I suppose it’s understandable that someone would faint during Strawberry Blonde; sometimes I feel like doing so when just playing the CD, and it’s not even my favourite Ron song.
Dear Ron was then full of concern about our welfare, asking the people up front if it was hot there and were they all right. He made a few light-hearted comments to cheer us up and deliver us from the could-be trauma of the incident, and expressed the hope that we would all remain well for the rest of the show. I noticed that he didn’t specifically state, ‘and don’t push anyone over the balcony’, but as I searched my soul to find the power to resist doing so for the rest of the show, he clarified any possible subliminal message by singing the first song to be featured that night from Whereabouts, MUST HAVE HEARD IT WRONG. In case I was left in any doubt, he sang these hugely appropriate lyrics that addressed the predicament in which we enthusiasts in the gallery found ourselves….<<High above it all/these words have lingered on/’I won’t let you fall’……Seems all these broken songs/Have fallen on deaf ears.>> I maintain that this was a cryptic message sent by Ron: Tia, don’t push those rude people off the balcony even though they’ve not listened to any of my songs and are making it difficult for anyone to do so. Although some people who listen to the voices in their head get locked away or burned at the stake, I thought it best to do so in this instance, and it gave me the strength required to resist taking drastic action to improve the acoustics in the area.
With my head slightly clearer, I was able to focus on Don provided an amazing thumping beat while the other three were on electric guitars (Jason’s being bass guitar, of course). Ron assumed his go-get-‘em stance, and the backing vocals were once again admirably perfect and clearly well rehearsed. Ron played a quick electric guitar solo near the end before finishing the wonderful song on his own, briefly singing a cappella.
They began JUST MY HEART TALKIN’ to cheers, and continued to create a fabulous sound with velvety backing vocals, powerful vocals from Ron, and a dramatic blend of the two electric guitars.
Perhaps sensing from any vibes I might be sending that some music to soothe the savage beast would be sensible, Ron then played one of my two favourite songs from the new album, GOLD IN THEM HILLS. Naturally, he played the introduction on piano, earning excited cheers from the audience, and Don moved in front of his drum set and began playing the cello beautifully. Tim stood by silently as the others worked their magic, and Jason began plucking out a tune on his electric upright bass before playing it with his bow, creating an amazing string section to Ron’s orchestra. This song is sublime whether Chris Martin has anything to do with it or not, though I accept that’s a good marketing tool and allowed me a bit of street cred when I was trying to explain to some of my younger non-Mojo reading colleagues the genius I was planning to go see that night. At the mention of the Coldplay singer’s name, said colleagues went from looking ignorant to approving wholeheartedly.
Apart from the evident beauty of the song, I love Gold in Them Hills because it’s another example of Ron’s bottomless pool of optimism. My e-mail messages all end with a quote from April After All that really rang true with me after I survived what seemed an endlessly awful part of my life, and I often get people interested in Ron just by explaining the origin of the quote they’ve seen on my messages.
If a Ron were a major pop star and a record producer were to say to him, ‘We want another April After All’, in the tasteless way that the record suits demand reproductions of hits, Ron could satisfy them as well as us with Gold in Them Hills. It can stand proudly on its own originality yet it still meets the requirements of being inspirational, comforting and reassuringly optimistic like the other song. As a teenager, I would listen to Morrissey and read Sylvia Plath and find comfort in realising that I wasn’t the only unbearably miserable person in the world. But I find that, as an adult, I seek comfort in hearing that I shouldn’t lose faith and that there truly is a way to escape what seems to be an inescapable dark cloud. April After All was one of the songs I put on a minidisc compilation I made to help find some positive direction again after 11 September. I’m pleased that I now have a whole selection of songs from which to choose next time I need that much comfort, though clearly I pray nothing like that ever leads me to require it again.
After that truly perfect performance, Ron was met with all sorts of requests called out from the audience. I never have the courage to do so, nor do I want to yell at someone who’s being so good to my ears and soul, but I probably would have called for Clown in Broad Daylight, having enjoyed that so much last year, or April After All. Or a dozen others, frankly, but I trusted Ron to pick out a selection of songs that I would continue to enjoy, and I was not disappointed. Ron amusingly gave a standard response that one might hear senior managers at work issue when they have no intention of taking on board your suggestions, ie something along the lines of ‘I’ll take note of your comments and give them careful consideration in due course.’ As Tim and Jason had already left the stage and Don was ready with his cello, Ron stood with his acoustic guitar and pointed out that they were already in position for the next planned song, so there was not much he could do about the song selection at that stage.
No one complained when he treated us to the glowing GOD LOVES EVERYONE, another song in the same class as April After All. Not even the unmentionables beside me could spoil the gentle presentation of this delightful number, try as they might. I even thought I heard someone on the main floor actually shout out a request during the song, but I hope I imagined that. Sadly, it does happen. I have seen Van Morrison walk off stage before because someone shouted out a request for Brown Eyed Girl whilst he was in the middle of singing something spiritual, and I’ve witnessed Brian Kennedy in Belfast singing a moving song called A Different God, during which you can imagine it was a bit inappropriate for women to be calling out ‘Get yer kit off!’ as they did. Fortunately, most of us were respectfully sensible, and Ron was greeted with the hugest of cheers from the audience when he finished.
Ron then began gently plucking out a lovely tune on his acoustic guitar, later hitting his rock ‘n’ roll stance while delivering a marvellous solo, and Don returned to the seat behind his drum kit and started beating a hand-held deep drum that looked like it had been made out of a hubcap, whilst beating the bass drum with his foot pedal. I adore this song, AT DIFFERENT TIMES; it is one of the few songs featuring a tuba that should have been a huge hit, though the sound of this live performance was so full, you didn’t miss the brass instruments. Here’s another song that helped me through a situation; I thought it was highly appropriate to include on a minidisk when I had to return home for the first time in seven years and wasn’t sure what I was facing, and of course it did the trick admirably. I was thrilled to hear this brilliant rendition at the Marquee Club, as was everyone else. This was one point in the evening, however, when the club’s admirable light show was a bit dizzying and overbearing for the material; it would have better suited Dragonfly on Bay Street.
Leaving that song for one with a similar theme, Ron introduced GALBRAITH STREET by saying he’d received an e-mail request for a dedication, so this would be to Mark from Katrina with love. The message had said something else, he admitted, but he couldn’t recall what it was. I hope it wasn’t meant to be a proposal of marriage. Never mind, Ron delivered an outstanding version that really opened my eyes to the beauty of this song. Perhaps because it’s from several albums ago and there are so many songs to enjoy, I haven’t really paid this one enough attention, and it was magical. Ron stood there alone with his acoustic guitar, bathed in a melancholy fuchsia light, passionately singing with an achingly beautiful voice about ‘so many goodbyes to speak of in a life’ and childhood memories, and it was heart-stopping stuff. I noticed one man on the floor near the stage standing with his hand on his heart, listening carefully with his eyes closed, as if experiencing an epiphany. I think we all were.
We snapped out of our engaging trance when Ron introduced the next song as one he wished he could have written, and he performed on piano the song that is causing disagreements about its identification. It was certainly Fleetwood Mac’s SONGBIRD from the Rumours album, although since I have not heard the early album that Christine McVie put out under her maiden name of Perfect, which indeed contains a song called For You that could be another title for Songbird, it may well be that the song is one in the same. Perhaps the purists insist that Ron performed For You; I suppose it would depend on which version inspired Ron to play it. In any case, Ron made it his own, delivering a gorgeous performance, so slow and moving that it fit right in with the rest of his songs, and I would have assumed it was another new romantic song (and by that I’m not referring to Spandau Ballet) by the master himself. Even the annoying people beside us stopped chattering for up to 32 whole seconds to listen to this one.
Remaining on piano, Ron muttered ‘you guys might know this one’ and, with Don back on drums, Tim on the smaller (non-Bill-Haley) electric guitar, and Jason on electric upright bass, began singing what might easily have been mistaken for an easy listening classic from the 1970s, perhaps because moments of the tune reminded me a bit of Paul McCartney’s My Love, but without the silly wo-wo-wohs. FOOLPROOF, unlike the other songs packed with optimism in the face of hopelessness that I mentioned before, is almost a cynic’s anthem, which I can relate to just as well. Still, it does almost have a sense of protesting too much, in a similar manner to Simon and Garfunkel’s I Am A Rock. I was pleased to hear it included in the set; it is another lovely song that can get overlooked and deserves to be highlighted.
Intriguingly, Ron then decided apparently to make a change to the setlist, as he whispered a title to each of his fellow musicians. To my delight, their bubbly musical introduction led to my other favourite song off Cobblestone Runway, FORMER GLORY. More April After All type beauty and hope, performed brilliantly and even more upbeat than on the album, I believe. This song would be stunning even if played on a comb and washboard, so I was a bit surprised that the audience didn’t seem to be more with Ron on this one, but then I could only see about a quarter of the audience from where I was sitting, and no doubt the others were enthralled.
Announcing that they were ‘gonna try to rock out of this place,’ Ron launched into an amazingly punchy version of THIS SONG, with Don providing a truly powerful thumping beat, and the three others on electric guitars (Jason on bass guitar still). Ron had to cup his hand over his ear to hear himself clearly and ensure he hit the right pitch, something I only saw him do three times all evening, and then I realised that he must be one of the few singers left performing these days without earpieces. What a natural talent! They truly did rock the house, complete with a guitar solo with Ron in his trademark stance.
As they approached the end, Tim whipped off his guitar and rushed to change to his ‘Bill Haley guitar’ whilst the others kept playing. When Don hit the final beat of the song, they all moved straight into NOTHING GOOD without pausing to let us catch our breath, a truly exciting tactic used incessantly by Ron-fan Elvis Costello on his current tour. Coincidentally, this delightful should-be pop song is what I left the Albert Hall humming after first seeing Ron, and of course between seeing him and leaving the venue, I’d heard an amazing Costello performance, so I was impressed that it was a song of Ron’s that stuck with me. My reaction to that night was to buy all of Ron’s albums the next day, and I saw the same reaction a year or so later in my Ron-virgin friend visiting from America for a few days who I took along to the Jazz Café. Clearly everyone loved Nothing Good, as the whole Marquee Club came to life again. Tim did a bit of Chuck Berry travelling towards Don during a solo, and Ron gave us some impressive guitar-picking; it was all marvellous.
Again barely pausing for breath, the boys burst into STILL TIME from Whereabouts, complete with more smooth 'ooooo’ type of do-wop backing vocals, which lightened up the mood. Gosh, there’s even more hope oozing from the lyrics in this song. Thank goodness we have Ron around to keep ourselves together! This quiet song came off as really upbeat, with Ron providing a great solo before name-checking Jason at the end and thanking the audience.
He then began on acoustic guitar playing LEAST THAT I CAN DO from the new album, so quietly amongst the growing chatter throughout the place that I could hardly hear him until the rest of the band kicked in. This exceptional performance was a welcome inclusion in the setlist because, quite frankly, my impression of this song on the album was that it was a gorgeous composition smothered in unnecessary and dubious sound effects. I can now confirm that, pared down to the basics, it really is the epitome of brilliance----and yet another romantic song clinging to hope for the future. During Tim’s solo, he again moved towards Ron to share the joy of the moment; I loved seeing these otherwise staid soldiers rocking out in their own way. Over the others’ silken backing vocals, Ron sang his guts out with this one, as though it really meant something special to him. Perhaps surprisingly, there was no piano in this rendition of the song, but it was faultless in its form.
When they finished that number, they all left the stage at about 10.30pm.
Just a few minutes later, they returned, all having removed their grey jackets---Ron was the last to do so---thus exposing their dark striped shirts. Ron commented that it looked as though they’d all just busted out of jail, and as we chuckled, he added ‘We’ve actually just busted out of Wolverhampton.’ I assume that’s where they played the night before; sounds like they had an adventure. With Ron on acoustic guitar, they played the always illuminating SEEM TO RECALL, my favourite song off Whereabouts and undoubtedly one of the few songs on earth to correctly use and rhyme the term ‘my wherewithal.’ The band played it smoothly, soothingly, with Don providing his usual percussion antics, shaking a maraca with one hand whilst rhythmically tossing a beanbag onto the snare drum with the other.
Ron was then bombarded with more urgent requests, but already had his own agenda, I believe. He picked out a quick, thumping intro on electric guitar to LEBANON, TENNESSEE, which earned instant cheers from the crowd who recognised it immediately. This song is yet another catchy, easily likeable number, but I have never before appreciated it as much as on this night, when it could not have been better presented. I seem to recall (!) hearing Eddi Reader and the brilliant Boo Hewerdine cover this song, I think at the Cambridge Folk Festival, and I was surprised that, when faced with a wealth of incredible songs by Ron, Eddi chose to do this one. I had also heard her perform Child Star, and of course there’s the near perfect On A Whim by Ron that is the best song on Eddi’s fourth album, but the gifted songwriting on L,T didn’t come through when she performed it. Thankfully, it did when Ron and the boys played it on this night, complete with ear-cupping a cappella moments from Ron on vocals. I will never again undervalue it.
Next, they returned to Whereabouts, with Ron pounding on the piano and Jason switching between plucking and using the bow on his upright bass as the two of them struck up RIVERBED. Don joined Tim to stand by microphones near the drums, playing nothing but joining in to provide illuminating harmonies on vocals. Here again was another song that I had foolishly allowed to slip away from the forefront of my mind, but after this gorgeous performance, it won’t happen again.
After this brief and beautiful interruption to Ron’s self-titled album, Ron signalled to Jason and Tim that they could leave----asking for a cheer for each band member beforehand----as he returned to the track that follows Lebanon, Tennessee on that album: SPEAKING WITH THE ANGEL (or the Christine Perfect type purists amongst you might insist on saying it was the song from Grand Opera Lane). On this song that accentuates his caring and insightful writing skills in the same league as Strawberry Blonde, Ron played acoustic guitar with Don providing sensational cello, and the crowd went mad upon hearing the first part of it. Unquestionably, this was one of the most delicate and dazzling performances taking place anywhere in London that night (the rest were also down to Ron). At ten to eleven, they left the stage.
Here is always the point of the evening where those of us with homes to go to start getting a bit nervous about catching our last trains, but at the same time, who could tear themselves away? So we all cheered madly until Ron and the band returned to the stage again. With Ron on acoustic guitar, Don back at his drums and the other two on their respective electric guitars, they created a thumping beat and delivered a truly strong, rocking performance of a song that confused me initially. How did Canadian Ron come to be singing about rattlesnakes in Utah and county lines? When I heard a bit more of the lyrics, I pronounced them to be distinctly un-Ron---'working all day in my daddy’s garage' and 'Mister, I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man.' I then realised what was going on—-this was the Bruce Springsteen cover I had heard about: PROMISED LAND.
Although it did bring the house down, this struck me as a really odd choice of song for Ron to cover. It had little in common with his own style of writing, though perhaps that was what appealed to him, and it basically just seemed to describe life in a small, dusty town for some angry guy with a pick-up truck. So I figured it must have been something that meant a lot to Ron when he was younger, as I couldn’t see what would catch his attention nowadays. I might be wrong, but having looked into my theory, I feel I can stand by it. This song was released by Springsteen in 1978, and since I think Ron’s my brother’s age, that would have made him about 14 at the time. At that age, you’re beginning to rebel against everything, and this song is all about longing for an escape, expecting to run away to something better. So I may be wrong, but I think this was something that had Ron air-guitaring in front of the mirror when he was of a tender age, and perhaps he always dreamt of playing it himself, or even covered it in his early days when he got a band together. It even made me think I could see an influence on Ron’s own Lebanon, Tennessee.
In any case, he can feel proud of having done justice to it on this night. Not only did Tim and Ron play some wonderful guitar solos, but Ron whipped out a mouth organ and played a mean solo on that that would make Dylan or Van Morrison jealous. That alone got the crowd roaring; everybody had the best time with this number--and I’m not even a Springsteen fan. But who would have guessed I’d see Ron Sexsmith play Springsteen? Now I’d like to witness the opposite…..
For their final song, Ron suggested something to Tim in a whisper, and Tim shook his head in disapproval. Ron apparently chose a different title and introduced SO YOUNG with lovely, trickly notes on the guitar. Although this is a very quiet song generally, the sensible and talented mixers at the car-sized sound board by the stage increased the volume so that Ron’s voice even defeated the chatter beside me. On the bridge of this song, in particular, Ron’s vocals were absolutely stunning, and the whole audience, apart from aforementioned exceptions, was totally enthralled. So much so, that it didn’t quite seem real with Ron and the others left the stage.
They did so so peacefully that I think we were all expecting yet another encore, although no one ever really does more than two, particularly when they’ve played 30 songs and it’s 11pm, when most licences require amplified music to cease. Seems we were just spoiled by then and wanted to continue listening for another week or so to this angelic looking genius and his perfect band as they continued to make us appreciate the earth and the music we managed to experience whilst upon it. The magnificent evening had been packed full of faultlessly performed, sublime songs, all of the perfect length and instilling the appropriate spirit within each of us. It was a shame to have to return to our ordinary working lives after having seen a concert that was so amazing that it caused grown men to faint!
So here’s the Cliff Notes version of the set, for those of you who understandably couldn’t be bothered to sift through all my rambling above:-
Epilogue: Despite my comment that the owners knew what they were doing, they sadly ran into cash flow (and other) problems that caused the club to go into receivership the very next month, and the brand new Marquee Club shut. I understand it has now been bought by the McKenzie Group Ltd (MKG), which owns the Brixton Academy and Shepherd's Bush Empire, so there is hope for its future.
Copyright © 2003 by TC.
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have visited this page reviewing Ron Sexsmith performing live at the Marquee Club since 26 March 2005.