Toronto singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith used to dream about one day headlining at Massey Hall, so much so that for years he declined offers to open for other artists at the venue. But, over the years, his “under the radar” records have resulted in one hell of a “under the radar” catalogue. Now, with a new album, Time Being, on the horizon, Sexsmith and his four-piece supporting cast assured themselves that their first Massey Hall performance would not be their last.
Playing to a near-capacity crowd, Sexsmith took a song or two to get his bearings and let those butterflies head back over to Bay Street. A soft, laidback, folk/pop “Seem To Recall” kicked things off but a false start stopped “Disappearing Act”. “I’m a little bit nervous,” Sexsmith said. “This is my first time at Massey Hall.” But from that point on, Sexsmith’s delivery and execution stayed sharp.
From soft, romantic-tinged ditties like “I Know It Well” to poppier tunes like “The Less I Know”, Sexsmith shined even on songs that don’t rely on the hooks and melodies he’s known for. Of course, the new material showed that he still has the knack. And in spades! Although few knew “Hands of Time” or “Snow Angel”, Sexsmith seemed to hit paydirt with the rather groovy “Jazz At the Bookstore”.
“I’m never going to get this pedal down,” Sexsmith, who is used to plugging into the amp, said of the guitar pedals around him. Regardless, gems like the tender “Lebanon, Tennessee” complemented the rowdier pop rock of songs like “I’ll Keep It in Mind”. Judging by the heads bobbing and swiveling, Sexsmith has mastered the art of bobblehead pop. But he quickly toned things down again. “I’m going to get all Buble on your ass!” he said, referring to Canuck crooner Michael Buble. “Foolproof” ensued with the singer sans guitar or piano, standing to deliver the gentle, heart-tugging tune.
A particular highlight occurred halfway through the evening. Accompanied by drummer Don Kerr on cello, Sexsmith nailed “Speaking with the Angels” from his 1995 self-titled release. Then, to top it off, the duo sang “Listen” from their Destination Unknown album without a microphone—just guitars and Everly Brothers-like harmonies at the lip of the stage.
Although he relied primarily on his own material, Sexsmith paid tribute to Gordon Lightfoot, who was in the audience, with “Drifters”. Referring to the venue as the “House of Gord,” since Lightfoot has played Massey dozens of times over the years, Sexsmith playfully asked the singer if the tempo was okay. It was.
Perhaps the oddity of the night was the winding, twisting, Beatles-que “The Grim Trucker”, which the group fleshed out nicely. The homestretch included a guest appearance by Andy Kim for Kim’s “How’d We Ever Get This Way” and staples such as “Strawberry Blonde” and “Secret Heart”. Following “Former Glory”, Sexsmith thought he hadn’t done enough from his Other Songs album for the concert, so concluded with “Thinking Out Loud”. Leaving to a standing ovation, Sexsmith thanked the crowd.
As if that wasn’t enough, Kathleen Edwards opened with tight set of her own. “This is an intimidating room, and I plan on conquering it,” the singer said with guitarist and hubby Colin Cripps to her left. The stripped-down arrangement didn’t hinder songs like “6 O’clock News” or “In State”, which had Edwards playing off of Cripps’ crisp riffs. The highlight of the set was a moving and quite chilling unreleased tune dedicated to Alicia Ross, a 25-year-old who was murdered in an Ontario town last year. Similar in tone to Springsteen’s “Dead Man Walkin’,” the song earned loud applause, and Edwards paused to wipe her eyes before closing with “Hockey Skates” and the toe-tapping “Back to Me”.