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Ron Sexsmith
River to River Festival
Battery Park – Clinton Castle
July 12, 2007

Written by Julia Sirmons
Photographed by Amy Davidson



As I dashed toward the slowly setting sun in Battery Park – late, due to one of those horrible trips on the 4 train that can only happen in the dead, stifling heat of summer – couples and families streamed off onto different paths, the water glistened under the sunlight, and Ron Sexsmith’s voice was telling me it was all going to be alright. His dulcet tones immediately started to stitch up my raveled sleeve of care. Everything was going to be OK, I told myself, slowing down and shaking off the subway grime.

Walking into the well-protected interior of the Castle Clinton monument – there were uniformed guards standing in almost every corner – I noticed Sexsmith’s band retreating from the bandstand. Looking at the crowd, the presence of the guards seemed comically superfluous. They were a surprisingly diverse cross-section of city denizens, representing almost every age, race, and sartorial persuasion. They sat quietly, content, soaking in the music and the gorgeous summer evening. Watching couples huddled close together and fathers hoisting their children upon their shoulders, all of them silently mouthing the lyrics to every song, it was impossible not to feel a little warm and gooey inside.

  Ron Sexsmith


Alone on the bandstand, Sexsmith shuffled to the mic, guitar in hand, and asked if it was OK if he sang some songs on his own. The crowd responded with a mellow but ardent warmth. Sexsmith explained that he’d be singing songs that had been requested via email. “It’s great,” he quipped gently. “You can get email on the Internet these days.”

The first song of his solo mini-set was the lovely and poignant “Words We Never Use,” a heartbreaking tune about the little ways couples fail to communicate. The second, “Pretty Little Cemetery,” a sweet, plaintive account of walking among tombstones with his family, is one of the most beautiful songs on the subject of memento mori, along with fellow Canadian Rufus Wainwright’s gorgeously sad “In A Graveyard.” Both “Words” and “Cemetery” were perfectly suited to the sparse yet elegant arrangement of Sexsmith’s passionate yet gentle voice and his skillful work on the acoustic guitar.

Afterwards, the band – who clearly get a huge kick out of playing together and with Sexsmith – grinned as they came back on stage for a rollicking, bluesy rendition of “Strawberry Blonde,” an evocative song about the lush details, sweet sadness, and naïveté of that first summer crush.

Though the crowd went wild for just about every song on the set list, Sexsmith seemed mildly disappointed with a few snafus. He forgot the lyrics to one song and decided to start over. “If it had been the second verse, I’d have kept going,” he said. He got a little shaken on a second tune, pausing for a moment then announcing, pleasantly surprised, “I thought I’d messed it up, but I didn’t.” He apologized for the “clumsy show,” saying, “I feel like the Nutty Professor.”

In spite of his own protestations, Sexsmith managed to keep the crowd on his side with his extraordinary voice – capable of both rich vibrato and tender, insistent crooning – which was in fine form, along with his clever, gently sardonic stage patter. Once, in between songs, an audience member asked the guitarist if he was playing a mandolin. The guitarist somewhat sheepishly confessed that it was only a 12-string guitar. “ It gives him the illusion that he can play the mandolin,” Sexsmith added, not missing a beat.

Any questions of Nutty Professor-dom were put firmly to rest with Sexsmith’s sublime rendition of his 1994 song “Secret Heart.” Before beginning, he mentioned that Toronto native Leslie Feist had covered the song on her critically acclaimed 2004 album Let It Die. Praising her rendition, Sexsmith remarked that “now everyone thinks that she wrote it, but actually I did.” There was no trace of rancor or bitterness in this comment, only good-natured amusement.

And then, almost as if slipping into a custom-tailored jacket, Sexsmith broke into “Secret Heart.” A perfect little melody with beautifully crafted lyrics, the song is kind of like a wiser, gentler “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl.” Sexsmith sang the first verse alone with his guitar. The band snuck in softly after the chorus, practically whispering the gorgeous vocal harmonies, and gradually building up to an instrumental arrangement that was almost symphonic in its elegant and meticulous perfection.

This perfection continued into the encore, when Sexsmith treated the audience to two songs perfect for the time and place. The first was “Former Glory,” a song Sexsmith said he wrote jointly for his young daughter and for the post-9/11 lower Manhattan. Even after so many years, sitting so close to the edge of the island as Sexsmith’s soft, soothing warble promised “it will burn brighter than you ever dreamed,” many eyes in the crowd welled up.

Sexsmith ended the evening with an exquisite rendition of “There’s A Rhythm,” sending the crowd back into the concrete jungle with his trademark wizened optimism. This pensive and soulful troubadour, who’s seen all the bad things life can bring but still has hope that it’s all worth it in the end, buoyed us up with his songs. It was going to be OK. The rhythm would move us forward, even if the 4 couldn’t.

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