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.