thu 24/09/2020

Ron Sexsmith/ Jim White, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Ron Sexsmith/ Jim White, Barbican

Ron Sexsmith/ Jim White, Barbican

An evening of cult singer-songwriters delights audience

Two cult singers on the same bill. A stirring prospect in itself, but last night they were both also at watersheds in their careers. The headliner, Ron Sexsmith, was looking to cultivate a more mainstream audience. He’s had his moments over the years, such as when he was covered by Chris Martin, Rod Stewart and Curtis Stigers. But last night he seemed to want the fans to have another look at him. On one song he styled himself as a “late bloomer”, but he didn’t need to convince this crowd.

Even though producer Bob Rock has done a good job putting some AOR sheen on the new record, the songs are more intimate live, and the audience lapped them up. Still, he’s not quite the mainstream performer he wants to be; the delivery’s just all a little too reflective. Support act, Jim White - that was a very different matter. The ex-model, surfer, boxer, cabbie, film-maker and comedian is niche and proud. Having recently left David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label, he’s been raising money for his new album with a hilarious fundraising campaign, offering to mow lawns and perform privately for those who donate.

For those who don’t know White’s work I’d recommend going to the later albums. Those and the BBC Two Arena film he made, Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, which goes to find the “gold tooth in God's crooked smile” and provides a complelling case that He exists...if only in the Deep South.

Sexsmith was losing himself so completely in the music that he looked like he might be practising some form of ZenWith all White’s Southern quirkiness, surely somewhere like the Barbican is the wrong place to hear him? From the records you might assume that this is music to listen to in a bar by a church in Alabama. But you’d be wrong. White brought his vision of the South with him. It was there in his often hilarious banter - he spoke of chasing tornadoes and men putting kitty litter in other's cars - his charming manner and, of course, his variously tender, ironic and Gothic songs.

“Chase the Dark Away”, one of two new songs, was very JJ Cale, with Belgian guitarist Geert Hellings echoing Mark Knopfler and Eric Clapton. “Keep It Meaningful Y’All” was like a country nursery rhyme. It was hard to split the other six, being, as they were, almost as good a selection of White’s offbeat Americana as any. The omission of“The Girl from Brownsville Texas” was odd,but made up for by White’s tale of how he came to write “If Jesus Drove a Motor Home”. One Jesus impersonator arrived in White’s home town of Pensacola, followed by another, then one with a cross on wheels, and finally Jesus was driving around in a motor home. The story was rendered with wit, respect and reverence.

Sexsmith’s skill is in crafting the perfect three-minute song that perfectly embodies a mood or feeling. He got through 24 last night, shambling on like a precocious schoolboy (it’s hard to believe he’s 47) and losing himself so completely in the music that he looked like he might be practising some form of Zen. His voice was more bittersweet than sweet and more often than not a little sad. The way Sexsmith sang “Hard Bargain” (recently covered by Emmylou Harris) was so full of country melancholy it alone could have explained the amount of affection for the man in the room.

Ron Sexsmith performs "Secret Heart"

 

Unfortunately, though, the sound system sounded more school hall than concert hall. Of the eight new songs he played, “Believe It When I See It” was the stand-out, with new-boy guitarist Stuart Cameron playing as if he was still trying to earn his place in the band. The biggest crowd-pleasers of the night were “Brandy Alexander” co-written with Feist, “Gold in Them Hills”, with Sexsmith taking a turn at the piano, and “Secret Heart” (see video above), which is already establishing itself as a standard.

But, for me, Sexsmith will always be about those puppy-dog love songs he does, and I suspect I'm not the only one. Before “Tomorrow in Her Eyes”, Sexsmith told of how he had received an email from a fan asking if he could send the original lyrics as it was his wife’s favourite song. He couldn’t, as he had long since lost them, but he had handwritten some more out again. He asked if the couple were here. Of course they were. But somehow the whole thing wasn’t schmaltzy or vomit-inducing, just terribly sweet, like the song.

“I see tomorrow in her eyes/ And where my future lies/ So I don’t need a crystal ball” go the lyrics. I don’t have a crystal ball either. But I’d wager that in three years' time, despite concerts like this, Sexsmith’s records will still be in the section marked "cult" in record stores. Should he care? Judgingby the standing ovation he got at the end of night, not a bit.

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