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Ron Sexsmith - The Borderline, London on 5 August 2003

As work had taken over my life, I was unaware of Ron’s two Borderline gigs this week until they were both sold out, and I was heartbroken, yet tried to focus on how much better off my credit cards would be for a change (it didn’t make me feel better). Hearing him interviewed on the radio only made things worse, although it was interesting to hear more of Ron than abbreviated between-song banter. Then at the end of Monday’s interview on BBC Radio 6, guest DJ Lauren Laverne said she had tickets to Tuesday’s gig for two people who could identify the Canadian province from which Ron hailed. I was thrilled to win a pair, and I also later found (too late) that an extremely kind soul from the Roddy Frame list would have been willing to get me in on Monday, too. These two incidences demonstrate two things: (1) Despite popular belief, the world is full of opportunities and good people. (2) God must want me to see Ron Sexsmith live. Maybe He loves everyone after all….

Never one to refuse the command of fate, I willingly volunteered to go downstairs into a teeny room in a cramped basement club on the hottest day of the year and jam myself into a sold-out crowd of almost 300 over-35s in near record temperatures. We really should have all taken our cozzies and stripped down and enjoyed the sauna, but instead we had something great on the postage stamp stage in front of us to keep us entertained.

The first something great was opening act David Mead, whose two albums I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. I have seen the now Nashville-based (but not country!) American perform at the Borderline before, but this set was an improvement even on that; perhaps the loss of high hair helped. Despite his playing only one of my three favourite of his songs, I loved every track he performed in his faultless, soaring voice, and he started to remind me a bit in his delivery of David Gray, except that he shook his head back and forth rather than side to side whilst singing (watching David Gray makes me nauseous). Mead’s bold and brimming confidence, sparkling jokey nature, and ease before an audience was a marked contrast to the act that followed him, and shortly after apologising for wearing sandals on stage as a result of fearing death by heatstroke the previous night in the club, he left the stage to cheers. Anyone who enjoyed his bright sense of humour should visit the ‘bio’ page of his official website, which includes a memo from the record company with plans of attack for enlightening the world about his talents. Perhaps Ron could try a few? (eg 1. Reinvent artist as Latin heartthrob. 6. Secure international Revlon campaign, now that Liz Hurley is out. http://www.davidmead.com/bioframe.html ) David now has a few days’ rest before joining the magnificent Joe Jackson on tour in North America. He keeps good company.

A happy consequence of David running late with his set (apart from hearing more of David) was that we only had to wait 20 minutes for Ron to take the stage at five past nine. He wandered on quietly with no announcement or fanfare, and had it not been for a few people sitting on the edge of the tiny stage cheering, we might not have known it was time to face forward again (mind you, I guess we as individuals always face forward, huh?). Ron, braving his trademark dark suit--over a dark t-shirt with a teasing indistinguishable long message that was mostly covered by his buttoned jacket--despite the sweltering heat (he should have at least worn sandals!), was hard to pick out in the darkness. In the past, when I’ve been to the Borderline, they’ve had the bright lights on just like you might in a cafeteria or something, so I guess it lacks ambience. Perhaps at the artists’ request tonight, or perhaps ‘cause the club thought it looked neat, it was so dark we could hardly see the sweat on each other’s faces. Ron was lit only by a bluish light so dark that I wished I’d brought my Berol Detective security marking pen so I could write messages on him that would surely glow in the dark. I worried the lighting might mean we might not notice soon enough when Ron in his masochistically hot outfit passed out from the heat, but fortunately—and to his credit, I have to say—he managed to remain conscious throughout his fine set.

Picking up his acoustic guitar with the bite taken out of its base (I’m very technical when it comes to musical instruments), Ron muttered ‘hi there, how are you doing’ to the audience and suddenly turned into Bing Crosby. Well, physically he was still the delightful tousled-haired cherub face with an awkward air and an aura of shyness, but his mouth emitted this amazing crooning of Bing’s song MOONLIGHT BECOMES YOU as his eyes were clenched shut. He supplied a lovely little solo on the guitar, when he backed away from the mike, bent his head towards the instrument and seemed to concentrate hard on picking out the notes, though I got the impression that he did so for his own enjoyment rather than because he was fearful of getting it wrong. The song was lovely and romantic, with some tricky vocal key changes near the end that Ron managed with ease, which proved he’s as much a singer now as a songwriter. As we cheered at the end of it, he mumbled quickly into the mike ‘Thanks very much. A little Bing for you.’

Ron then quickened the pace and began strumming to the fabulous HONEST MISTAKE from his fantastic Other Songs album. A lesser artist might have seen this as a ploy along the lines of, if beginning the set with an unusual old croony cover didn’t go down well, I can win them back with the sympathy vote by owning up to my error. No need in this case of course. This marvellously catchy and sensible song had me wondering whether Ron held the record for the number of catchy tunes with meaning? Surely he beats his closest contenders, Lennon and McCartney, as they only technically wrote half their output since there were two of them.

At the end Ron opened his eyes and scrutinised us in the blue darkness, a jam-packed crowd just a few feet away from him, and commented that it seemed slightly cooler than the previous night, but advised us to think about Niagara Falls in order to cope. Those not in the UK right now might wonder what all the fuss is about with our temperatures making the news. When I was growing up in North Carolina, we regularly had worse temperatures with terrible humidity, and I would have scoffed at this nonsense. But in North Carolina, we had air conditioning, and I didn’t have to run two miles to catch an un-air-conditioned train (going slowly because of the fear of rails buckling in the heat), carrying a heavy bag with everything I’d need that day, or go deep underground to jam my body intimately against thousands of other sweating commuters on a totally airless Tube train. Also, in North Carolina, even the men would wear light linen suits in this weather. In England, bless them, the men wear their heavy wool navy pinstripes all year round, and I spotted a few of these last night in the club. Now the Borderline, a windowless basement club, claims to have air conditioning, but from what I could tell, it amounted to a few of the staff at the bar blowing gently across the room. So I focused on the image of Niagara Falls as best I could. Fortunately, after a slightly ropey start, the sound mixer had his act together and did a marvellous job all night, so we could concentrate on Ron’s every word. It helps that he sings so clearly, in contrast to another of my favourites, Van Morrison, where I have trouble identifying what song he’s muttering into the microphone even when it’s my very favourite.

After informing us that he would sing a few songs from his ‘new album’ Cobblestone Runway, Ron closed his eyes again and concentrated—well, I guess on Niagara Falls; I had assumed he was focusing on the meaning of the lyrics, but now I realise he was probably relying on psychological air conditioning. He beautifully sang the hopeful UP THE ROAD before moving with barely a pause onto the sublime THESE DAYS.

Now, These Days is a fine song with some smooth backing vocals wrapping it up in the perfect pop package. Lauren Laverne opened the ‘Ron segment’ of her breakfast show on BBC Radio 6 (yay! Love Radio 6) on Monday by playing that, and when speaking to Ron afterwards made a reference to the ‘Walk on the Wild Side backing vocals’. Ron said he had been worried about that when he first heard the final mix, as he hadn’t been around when the backing vocals were recorded, but the producer didn’t know what Ron was talking about. He said surprisingly few people had picked up on that similarity (I didn’t--and I played the Lou Reed song endlessly in my youth), but pointed out that his song is not about decadence and is a far cry from the Wild Side, so to speak. Ron told Laura that he originally wrote the song for Shea Seger to sing, as though from the point of view of a big brother talking to a heartbroken younger sister who had believed in all the love songs one hears full of promises to always be there and never break the other’s heart. He said it’s not a cynical song as he’s romantic. Somehow the song meant more to me when I heard it in the Borderline after hearing Ron’s explanation of the lovely feeling behind it.

After his uplifting performance of These Days in the Borderline—and the song was surprisingly just as lively without the Wild Side backing vocals—he moved straight into the incredibly poignant SPEAKING WITH THE ANGEL, delivering absolutely gorgeous vocals and a wonderful guitar solo; he seems to have greatly improved as both singer and musician although I didn’t realise there was much room for improvement.

Afterwards Ron, no doubt dangerously dehydrating in his hot suit on this hot night, informed us sweetly that he was not a summer person, that he was ‘Autumnal,’ an apparent characteristic that he also discussed with Lauren Laverne on the radio show. He had thus been described and felt it suited him, particularly as he didn’t like the heat, he explained, and he had even taken a cardigan with him to the studio on the day of temperatures in the high 90s, bless him, because he didn’t know what the weather would be like.

Ron kindly then played a request that he had been asked the night before to play for Vivian: the touching RIGHT ABOUT NOW, played with tremendous feeling, closed eyes and sublime vocals. When he finished, he said, ‘Here’s one from Blue Boy’ and seemed surprised by the cheers, perhaps because the audience all night had been so silently reverent apart from loving cheers after each song. ‘You like that one?’ Ron checked. ‘I was quite proud of it.’ I believe he said then that it was well-received but perhaps didn’t get such welcome reviews over here (as I recall, all the reviews I read thought it was brilliant.) He treated us to the endearing JUST MY HEART TALKIN’, braving to open his eyes and look at us (or the darkness before him) during the song now. Sometimes—usually when I’m ill or on strong painkillers—I look at the first verse of this song and wonder if that’s the type of thing that Billy Ray Cyrus meant to write but it came out as Achy Breaky Heart ‘cause he’s just not Ron.

The spectacular last verse, ‘Some people tell me/Eyes are windows of the soul/But eyes can be like empty sockets/Maybe you’d be better off alone,’ Ron delivered with such Oscar winning feeling, we were all completely overawed, and when he finished pounding out some strong chords on the guitar to end the song with a flourish, we embarked upon some majorly serious, albeit hot and drained, cheering.

Next up was a song that would have me jumping up with a dance and a cheer even at my own funeral (note to self: request that they play CLOWN IN BROAD DAYLIGHT at my funeral). I absolutely adore this song (but then I adore so many of his songs), and I thought that its initial appeal was the magnificent brass (I’m a sucker for trumpets) and handclaps. Clearly, in the Borderline with Ron alone on stage with only his guitar and suit for company, there was a noticeable dearth of brass, baritone sax and handclaps (the audience was too hot to exert itself by offering assistance. We were concentrating on not fainting and Niagara Falls.). However, Ron miraculously injected just as much life into this song, so I was dancing around the room mentally (takes up less room, that does) and even thought of doing some mental head banging to the beat he created. Wow.

Ron then performed what he said was the shortest song he’d ever written (1:53), BEST FRIENDS, and played the slow, wonderfully peaceful tune with a loving respect. Reassuringly, he sang ‘there’s nothing in this wash that won’t come clear’ shortly after the first incident of someone pouring beer over me, and though I doubt that’s what he meant, it made me feel better as my outfit was linen, you know. (That’s okay; I have a dry cleaner near home.)

He then got me excited at the prospect of his duetting with David Mead, and explained that he had been trying to think of something they could perform together, and decided on the Beatles’ SOMETHING. He referred to the stupendous guitar solo from Something that he’d injected into his gig last year at the Marquee (sadly now in the hands of administrators but not because of Ron) as a tribute to the then-recently deceased legendary George Harrison, and thought that he and David could perform the whole song now as a more fitting tribute. He warned that they had only performed it once before, and David, who had walked on stage and sat at the small electric piano, with his back to Ron and his right side to the audience, interrupted with an urgent and playful, ‘Don’t tell them that! They’ll devour us!’ Ron, in his usual self-effacing mode, told us that if we heard some bad notes, ‘you know where to look’. So with Ron on acoustic guitar that bizarrely sounded like a first class electric one, and David on piano, Ron sang the first verse of Something and then David sang the second, with both harmonising wonderfully on the chorus. Their voices melted together so beautifully that I didn’t even realise that they had changed vocalists between verses until Ron stepped back from the mike to reveal the seated David’s head taking over the job. David was beaming throughout, bubbly and loving every minute of performing, an apparent marked contrast to Ron, who probably was enjoying himself but didn’t smile once throughout the evening. Not in a Van Morrison grouch kind of way, but in a, well, Autumnal melancholy. He just seems to give himself no credit and the shyness takes over, bless him, though he still manages enjoyable between-song banter and prize-level performing.

Their rendition of Something was really so lovely, these two dreamy voices taking over, and I wish I had a recording of it—though at the end, Ron tried some fancy ending on the guitar that David wasn’t prepared for so they had a bit of a clash of keys. Ron, apparently a perfectionist, muttered ‘almost did it!’ as we started to applaud, and then decided that they had to go back a few bars and play the ending perfectly, which they did. David jumped up, they gave each other a warm hug, having produced something (hey—a pun!) wonderful together on their last night of touring together. They deserved the huge cheers they got; it was terrific fun hearing their rendition. I wish I could again.

Ron sheepishly worried aloud that he had set himself up for a fall because David really knows how to play piano, which would make Ron look bad now that he took his place on the piano bench. Naturally, he was mistaken, and he faultlessly played the sublime GOLD IN THEM HILLS (sounding exactly like Chris Martin, according to the cute BBC London competition the other day….). Apart from the song being a highlight of a consistently high evening, it was memorable for me because, once again, someone spilled beer over me—a puzzle since I was tucked away in a corner and not in anyone’s path, but beer still ended up being held over my head. (That’s okay; I have a shower at home). They must have known I was the person who wrote these tiresome reviews. Anyway, that wasn’t the memorable part as I was getting used to being wet and smelly (weren’t we all, in that heat?). The memorable part came as I stooped on the floor in the total darkness and fumbled around blindly in my bag for a tissue or three to steep the flow of beer down my side, whilst still enjoying Ron’s stunning trademark lilting and wavering vocals in an otherwise silent club full of people concentrating on him, and remembered that I had on my keychain a new deafening personal alarm that I’ve managed to set off at least three times recently by accidentally pulling out the feather-light cord. Relax, I didn’t do so on this occasion, but the fear that struck me upon the realisation that I might easily do so in this setting made me abruptly abandon my pursuit and decide that it would be preferable to have wet beer running down my side and to burn the outfit later.  We all know how irritating it is when someone's mobile phone goes off during a concert.  Imagine, during a quiet and touching song performed by Ron a few feet away, me suddenly setting off a 130dB piercing alarm.  It would not have been my best moment.

Bizarrely, considering his talent, Ron then asked us if his singing was okay, as he felt like he was hearing lots of bum notes, but then he felt that that was part of his style…. That was a lovely statement, but none of us had heard any bum notes come out of his mouth, and someone rightly shouted ‘you’re fantastic!’.

Having begun his set with a cover of a Bing song, Ron then played one of his own songs performed as Bing might have covered it. He didn’t say this, as he remained at the piano and played WASTIN’ TIME, but the way Ron crooned it elevated it to a truly special rank that, unfortunately, the recorded version—now almost 10 years old—just doesn’t reach. Eventually it made me start to think of Billy Joel before he was naff, when Just the Way You Are was the ultimate romantic song, about loving his wife faults and all (before dumping her to marry supermodel Christie Brinkley.) I simply mean that Ron’s song was dead romantic, without a need for symbolic sonnets or anything other than simple words crafted together perfectly. Now someone will reveal that he wrote it about playing truant with his male buddy when they were eight years old, but I can imagine, can’t I?

Ron stood from the piano and took a swig from a bottle of mineral water (isn’t he good, no alcohol—he probably would have spilled that on me if he had some; I was a beer magnet last night). He casually mentioned that he had been working on his next album in London all week (it being Tuesday), so his voice was a bit froggy. Despite our outward silence, I think we were all cheering madly in our minds at this news; perhaps we were subdued by the heat and the awesome entertainment we’d been experiencing. Frankly, I’m surprised we didn’t all spontaneously combust. I know everyone was thrilled at the prospect of work progressing on the next album, but we were too dehydrated and exhausted actually to open our mouths and emit noise at that stage. Interestingly, during the Radio 6 (yay! Love Radio 6) interview, Ron told the presenter that he had planned to call his next album Golden Retriever as that presented such a lovely image (hear hear, I grew up with a pack of Golden Retrievers). However, Super Furry Animals—a band he admitted to loving since he saw them on Later With Jools Holland—beat him to it. When the producer of the radio show informed Ron that the band had all dressed as Golden Retrievers in the video, Ron said that he could never get away with something like that himself. Perhaps we should take a poll—how many people would like to see Ron came on stage wearing a Golden Retriever suit? It wouldn’t have been much cooler than the one he was wearing all night—the jacket was never even unbuttoned, poor suffering man, suffering for his art in a hot basement club in summer when he’s Autumnal.

He ploughed on admirably, describing the next song as a ‘front porch song’, which he understood we didn’t have over here (porches not songs), ‘but we sure love ‘em back home.’ Returning to guitar, he revealed said song to be TELL ME AGAIN. I think I could safely say that, if I had a front porch from which I could gaze off at the cars on the road in the distance and the blue flowers on the hill and drift off into my own little world, seeking to have someone reassure me and remind me of fond times, yes, I’d play this song; I do anyway. Its gentle delivery on this night was warm and sparkling.

Ron then sensibly wiped his face with a towel on the water table, and I may be wrong but I think he introduced the classic STRAWBERRY BLONDE by saying ‘here’s an Australian song’; I can justify that in my head but think I’m probably mistaken. Ron, as always, told this special tale with enormous feeling and care, his eyes remaining closed (for fear that his soul would be revealed?) until he suddenly opened them, almost startling me in doing so, during the particularly moving bridge. Perhaps he wanted to check that we were still there, that we hadn’t fainted, and that we were fully appreciating this remarkable song that touches everyone from the first time they hear it. Again, he amazed us with an impressive little guitar solo.

After that peaceful number, Ron suddenly banged out some chords on the guitar and said in a quiet voice, ‘I’m going to try to rock out here, see what happens’—and I’m sure AC/DC couldn’t have said it better themselves. Ron’s voice was spot on, just perfect during DISAPPEARING ACT, revealing itself best throughout the night when he hit the many high notes in his repertoire, and this song was another that remarkably didn’t lose a thing with the memorable piano riff and backing vocals peeled away, leaving just this amazing man and his perfectly good guitar. I thought I heard someone finally singing along a bit to this one—not that anyone particularly needed to join in as Ron’s voice was so clear and loud all night—but it might have just been my own mind, giving up dancing for singing within itself.

Next came Ron’s Leonard Cohen cover, HEART WITH NO COMPANION. I adore the first lines of this song, ‘And I greet you from the other side/Of sorrow and despair.’ This live version was vastly superior to the version on Ron’s (post-Grand Opera Lane) debut, which has a sort of festive bluegrass feel to it, whereas at the Borderline, it was delivered in clear, uncluttered Dylanesque style, and it was brilliant. (Incidentally, every time I play that 1995 album, I always find myself saying about the song that follows that one that I must note it down and be sure to put it on my next minidisc for the train, as it’s truly stunning and yet I somehow keep overlooking it: Several Miles. It’s just beautiful.)

Upon ending the Cohen song, Ron said he was going to sing a song he hadn’t done the night before, and played the wonderfully fun NOTHING GOOD, which I believe was the first song that particularly caught my attention when I was first exposed to the wonder of Ron when he opened for Elvis Costello at the Albert Hall some years ago.

Next, a lively and rejuvenated Ron said he wanted to do something by The Boss, or ‘The Foreman’ as he might be known ‘back home’, which kept us laughing as he tried to find which key he should be playing, which he said he could never remember. He played BOBBY JEAN, fascinatingly more in the style of a lullaby than I would imagine The Boss would play it, but then I have never been a Bruce Springsteen fan so I haven’t heard his version. It seemed fitting, though, for Ron to play this song, as its lyrics conveyed a similar sad sentiment and situation that I can see Ron writing about but with cleverer lyrics. It always strikes me as interesting that Ron was a Boss fan, and I’m just glad of anyone who inspired him to pursue this field, surpassing most of the artists he admired in his youth, I’m sure.

Ron then strummed away at one of my other very favourites (one must be allowed several when speaking of the master songwriter), the outstanding SEEM TO RECALL, which he performed spectacularly. During this song, someone dumped half a pint of beer on my foot. That’s okay, I imagine cows have that happen all the time, so the leather shoes should be fine. It occurred to me, since each of these incidents was an odd sort of spillage rather than one you could see about to happen, that (a) people were perhaps trying to cool off by dumping beverages on themselves, and they just had bad aim, or (b) just like the Teletext holiday adverts, the other punters had found out that I didn’t pay for my tickets and proceeded to punish me for their envy in the only way they could. I like to think it’s (a) though as we’re all on the same team, surely, as Ron admirers. Anyway, it was kind of neat, as a teetotaller, to spend the 90-minute train journey home finally being the one reeking of beer.

Sadly, having now played for over an hour, Ron started making leaving noises, thanking David Mead for his support ‘not just tonight, but for all the nights.’ He played as his swansong for the evening the gorgeous FORMER GLORY, with his eyes open for a change throughout the song, perhaps in an effort to get a good look at a happy audience on this last night of the tour. After performing all night to vocal perfection, Ron left the stage as we all cheered madly, despite the risk of fainting from the exertion.

He kindly returned two minutes later, this time with a pint of beer that he held up to toast us (which made me very nervous, you can imagine). He was just so adorable, acting totally shocked and grateful for the call back to the stage. ‘Aw, thanks very much, that’s very sweet.’ He thanked us for enduring the heat in the small cramped club (right back at you, big guy). Of course, we did have the breath of the bar people blowing on us, so it was just bearable. Now, everyone had been very quiet all evening, apart from the mad cheers in the right places, and behaved so well that requests weren’t even called out, despite Ron clearly having the amazing ability to read and please the crowd, as well as the memory and flexibility required to vary the setlist as he went along. Tonight, I particularly wanted to hear SECRET HEART; I love that song, it’s so touching and special and speaks to so many, and I just really wanted everyone to hear it on this night. But I never shout out requests, even when everyone else does. So 200 points to Ron for reading my all-dancing/singing mind and playing exactly that song now. His performance was jaw-dropping, and Ron even scrunched up his eyebrows at times as if to stress to the listener his sincerity and the importance of his message. He held up the neck of his guitar to treat us to some flourishes at the end of the song, and if the heat didn’t make any of us faint, this performance very nearly did.

Ron barely paused before pounding away at his guitar and launching into another song that you would imagine would suffer from the lack of instrumentation (strings even!) and production that one is used to, but doesn’t: BEAUTIFUL VIEW. It could have been the heat finally affecting my brain, but Ron seemed to perform the song in a manner that mirrored George Harrison’s Within You Without You off Sgt Pepper’s---the way that the vocals follow the sitar in Harrison’s song, here Ron seemed to follow his guitar exactly, rather than just singing over chords, and he perhaps inadvertently made the guitar sound a bit like a sitar. Apart from being typically Ron-romantic, this song was a particularly suitable song for an amazing artist about to abandon his audience and his tour, starting with the words ‘If I had all this time on my hands/Well I would love to share it with you….’ He ended it with some Da-do-da’s that sounded a bit like Mungo Jerry’s In the Summertime. So there’s a performance for you!

Ron moved to the piano as someone called out ‘Don’t stop now!’, and Ron said we were amazing. But what’s a little heatstroke when you’re getting this kind of magic from the man? Perhaps safe in the knowledge that he was playing before Blue Boy fans, Ron treated us to an astoundingly beautiful FALLEN, again sounding particularly impressive when hitting the higher notes. When he finished, he warned us that he’d be leaving after the next song, which someone had requested before, and he started banging out notes on the piano, really concentrating on the beautiful introduction to FOOLPROOF. Foolproof is the poet’s version of the cheaper ‘I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,’ Ron’s own I Am A Rock, and it’s perfectly written. I’d love to have a recording of this fine, softer and touching rendition on solo piano, to enjoy in addition to the jazzier version on the album. Of the 700 or so complicated piano notes in the song, there were perhaps three that Ron seemed to struggle with—but that’s his style!—and it was barely noticeable, particularly as his voice lilted over our heads and melted anyone who hadn’t melted already. The song is lovely any way, but this performance was truly awesome, and Ron can feel proud that he tied up the fantastic show with such a beautiful finish.

Ron then stood, again without smiling but with a warm expression of sorts, and held up his beer in a toast to us again (I escaped unscathed), then walked off stage looking very serious but, I hope, proud that his amazing musicianship and endearing personality had entertained us so magnificently and made our world a happier place until the next blow, when we’ll just have to take out his records, the ultimate cheer-up pill.

Copyright © 2003 by TC. All rights reserved.

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