Tower of song

Canadian icon Ron Sexsmith returns for the songwriters’ circle Bluebird North. Sean Flinn learns why you shouldn’t be surprised if he hauls out ABBA.

photo John Painter

At this point in time you could say Canadian song has reached a pinnacle—Leonard Cohen shedding tears as he considered his own journey up the tower of song during his recent induction in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.

It was a lovely moment for a highly deserving artist and exemplar to younger artists everywhere. Those younger voices include Rufus Wainwright, who performed Cohen’s sexy, smart (aren’t they all?) classic “Everybody Knows.”

They also include a guy who’s become a guiding light climbing the tower of song in his own right, Ron Sexsmith. As with Cohen, people always note Sexsmith’s quietness and modesty, a sensibility infused in his songs.

Sexsmith’s participation in the latest Bluebird North tour, which hits Halifax February 16, comes about a month after Feist played two sold- out shows here. One of the highlights of her set was her dramatic delivery of Sexsmith’s “Secret Heart,” off his 1995 major label debut. Feist zeroed in on and amplified the major key, the big emotion and exhortation to “let her in on your secret heart,” at the centre of the sweet and simple tune.

“I think if a song is complete or strong enough when you strip it down to its bare essentials then I think anyone can make it their own,” Sexsmith says from Toronto. “It should able to withstand any sort of arrangement people may throw at it.”

Sexsmith’s tunes will stand up for generations. We’ll hear his music performed in decades to come the way we hear Cohen’s today.

But, again, Sexsmith remains quiet and modest. Gracious too. That quality makes him the perfect Bluebirder. “It’s just about listening and waiting your turn, trying to bounce things off of each other,” he says of songwriters’ circle etiquette. “We normally do our own songs but sometimes jamming is encouraged.”

Imagine Sexsmith dueting on a song by Jane Siberry, author of touchstone tunes like “One More Colour”—which itself got a searing, noisy treatment by Rheostatics—from the Bluebird stage. Siberry, along with Shari Ulrich, the tour’s frequent co-host with Blair Packham (a “longtime friend” to Sexsmith, who reports Packham can’t make the Halifax date), Hot Toddy member Thom Swift and Newfoundland icon Ron Hynes.

“For me it was always just an excuse to hang out with him,” Sexsmith says of his multiple appearances under the Bluebird banner. “But anyway I’m still looking forward to it. I haven’t played in quite some time and I love the east coast.”

Despite his need to warm back up in the middle of winter, Sexsmith will likely show his ease and skill right away. He recalls a gig in Toronto, circa his third album, 1999’s Whereabouts, that came together at the last minute and he had to call on his bandmates at the time—bassist and backup vocalist Tim Vesely (of the Rheostatics and Violet Archers) and drummer, backup singer and longtime collaborator Don Kerr. (Check out the duo’s Destination Unknown album from last year.)

The trio kicked out a surprising, expert rock version of ABBA’s “Knowing Me, Knowing You.”

“Well, if I’m a fan of a particular song it’s because I feel connected to the melody and lyric in a big way. And if I can get behind it wholeheartedly then it’s no trouble to put it across,” Sexsmith explains. “I originally learned that ABBA song because I loved it as a kid and because we were touring Sweden and I thought I’d pay my respects to one of their great pop bands.”

That shows a big heart to make no secret for pure pop like an ABBA song, especially in a town that hosted an insanely long-running musical, Mamma Mia, based on the Swedish supergroup’s music.

Sexsmith won the Songwriter of the Year Juno last year when the awards were in Winnipeg. He was lauded for three songs in particular off his last solo album Retriever—“Whatever it Takes,” “Hard Bargain” and “Not About to Lose.” The latter stands as a classic-in-waiting, whether in its original form or as ripe fruit for the picking by some young, savvy climber up the peaks of Canadian song.

Bluebird North, February 16 at Casino Nova Scotia, 1919 Upper Water, 8pm, $25, 425-7777.

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