Ron Sexsmith (and Anna Calvi), Meltdown, Royal Festival Hall

My first visit to the Royal Festival Hall yesterday evening, to see Canadian songwriters’ songwriter Ron Sexsmith supported by English chanteuse Anna Calvi as part of the Meltdown festival, this year curated by venerable Kink Ray Davies.

My ticket said ‘Ron Sexsmith and Anna Calvi’ leading me to assume they would be duetting, but instead Calvi was the support act, whatever the puff about ‘co-headlining’. So we start with Anna alone, starkly silhouetted in a single spotlight, ringing furious attack and spidery lines from her electric guitar. We start, I should say, bang on 7.30 – the first time this has ever happened at a gig I’ve been to. They had a lady on the PA asking people to take their seats and everything. Between songs it was a bit like a tennis match after each game, with latecomers quickly shuffling in.

Anyway: I’d listened to Calvi’s eponymous debut album earlier that day, diligent gig-goer that I am, and really enjoyed it: vamped up, melodramatic vocals and orchestration, pounding drums, spooky and sexy. I don’t know whether it was the acoustics of the Royal Festival Hall or something else, but the effect was rather muddied in this performance.

Anna was joined by a drummer who also provided backing vocals, and a percussionist who also squeezed noise out of an instrument that may or may not have been an accordion. Whereas on the record the vocals are consistently to the fore, here they were frequently drowned out in a wall of noise (in one sense a jolly impressive achievement for so few) which resulted in an excessively oscillating effect, between VERY LOUD one moment and breathy whispering into the mike the next. It feels like Calvi would really benefit from fuller orchestration to achieve the beautiful, sensuous, varied sound of the album (or maybe a less echoey venue, who knows).

After a break during which my Guardianista neighbours and I were able to top up our red wine levels, we’re onto the main act. Ron’s appeal is summed up pretty early on when his wife has to come onto the stage to help him change his guitar strap, having used his acoustic herself in a previous performance and forgot to change it back. So we go from ‘Ron as Johnny Cash’ to a more comfortable position, all accompanied by Sexsmith’s cheery banter, which happily continues throughout (even when some idiot in the audience volubly complains that the bass drum is too loud). After one number Ron says ‘at the end of that song I feel like Bono … then I wake up’.

For Ron Sexsmith is deeply, profoundly human: nothing is hidden, the songs are simple statements of unspectacular failure, longing, happiness and loss. This might all be a bit po-faced were Ron’s songs not buoyed by such gorgeous melodies. I’ve blogged before about the special Mr Sexsmith, so it was predictable that I would love this gig, but it really was so very beautiful. This is a man who can leave a song like Tears Behind The Shades to a rarities album when other writers would kill for such whistleable material. I can understand that some people might be turned off by Ron’s very slightly atonal vocal inflections and just-reached high notes, but these people can never be my friends.

You don’t have to take my word for it when it comes to Ron’s special gift, this is, after all, someone who songwriter-in-chief Ray Davies asked to headline his festival. Ray joins Ron for one duet, a pretty Kinks number called Misfits which I hadn’t heard before (to my shame). Other highlights were a smoothly rolling Better Get In Line, a beautifully pared down Miracles (just piano, guitar and voice) and a sorrowful, soulful Seem To Recall accompanied by sighing slide guitar. But really it just comes down to moments like the chord progression of the chorus on Dandelion Wine. And we finished – I was so, so pleased that this song featured – with the song that best sums up Ron Sexsmith’s amazing talent: the story of a man looking to lose himself in a foreign town, Lebanon, Tennessee. Just beautiful.


9 Responses to Ron Sexsmith (and Anna Calvi), Meltdown, Royal Festival Hall

  1. TONY says:


  2. Chris says:

    Yes, Ron Sexsmith is great, I never miss a gig, if possible. And last night’s show was remarkably good, esp considering they hadn’t slept the previous night.

    But the guy who called out about the bass drum (and the bass) being too loud wasn’t an “idiot” at all, he was saying what I and my group of 4 felt, plus a lot of others, judging by the response, including a few I clearly heard around us.

    Similar sound problems happened at Ron’s Barbican show in May, so there’s clearly a problem with these large London venues as I’ve never experienced this before at Ron gigs.

  3. Phil says:

    Thanks for reading and for commenting Chris. Sorry for any offence caused by the ‘idiot’ bit, it was a throwaway line. I just feel that in those kind of settings which are for many people, not just a few, the e.g. sound balance will never be the same for everyone – and whilst you guys may’ve been put off by the loud bass/drum (I didn’t notice anything from where I was sitting), I was similarly put off by the shouting out! And it’s not impossible to imagine that Ron was too.

    Anyhow – cheers.

  4. Chris says:

    Ok, Phil, but…While you – or even Ron and the band – might have been put off for a few moments or even a minute or two, many were distracted for much of the 90 minutes or so of the entire gig.

    I know zero about such technology, but a friend in my small group last night reckons it’s a relatively straightforward thing to sort out, ie by moving a dial or something.

    Sorry, but it’s not good enough to expect anyone who’s paid for a show to have to resign themselves to sub-standard sound.

    Perhaps try putting yourself in others’ shoes and see where it leads?

    • Phil says:

      This is a classic ethical dilemma! Should we place a higher premium on the intense feelings of a small number of people (I’m absolutely not doubting that, for you guys, this matter was a real pain), or the more moderate feelings of a greater number?

      Your ‘others’ shoes’ point gets right to the heart of it: what I think I object to most strongly about shouting out and thereby disrupting the gig for a larger number of people – albeit not in such a severe way – is that your group (or any group, for that matter) did not (and of course could not, practically) check that you were speaking on behalf of a majority of the rest of the audience. The shouting out was a minority act. And anyway surely the intended outcome could’ve been achieved by walking up to the sound desk and having a quiet word with the technician?

      Anyhow, I’m genuinely sorry for you and your friends that your enjoyment of the gig was impaired – I’m just lucky mine wasn’t in the same way. And however much we may disagree on gig-going protocol, sounds like we agree on one thing at least, a love for RS…

  5. Chris says:

    Phil, are you saying that your and others’ enjoyment of the music would have been likely to have been impaired if the bass volumes had been modified to not become such a nuisance to myself and quite a few others? (Surely not, you’re referring only to the ‘disruption’ of the show, aren’t you?).

    Neither I nor my three friends had any idea where the controlling sound technicians were based and frankly it never crossed my mind to even complain to anyone as these things are a total mystery to me and I just tend to accept them as ‘given’, ie impossible to change. Besides, I’m just not the type to shout out! That’s why I was so surprised when someone (not in my group, btw, and a fair way behind the front few rows) shouted to complain.

    But I repeat, I see nothing at all wrong with this and neither would I have if I had been in your situation. After all, it only lasted a very short time, it’s not as if people went on and on about it – not that ‘disruptive’, surely?

    So you’re stressing it was a minority interfering with the pleasure and well-being of the majority cuts no ice with me, I’m afraid, in fact it reminds me of the famous statement by De Tocqueville in the 1840’s, about the limitations of democracy: “the tyranny of the majority”!

    Anyway, it seems last night’s Leamington gig had no such problems, thankfully – perhaps it’s a question of size of venue, height of hall etc. as we also had sound balance problems at the Barbican. Can you imagine how frustrating this has been, to look forward to such grand occasions, buy the most expensive tickets – and be disappointed to get a sub-standard sound?

    Although someone at Ron’s site, a fan who used to run a recording studio and do location shoots, has said today that such issues are par for the course in certain places, due to bass notes being of very long wavelengths.

    In which case, I still say, turn the blasted volume down – or at least warn people that they’ll face an impaired experience if they choose to sit in certain areas.

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