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BEYOND LOCAL: Songwriting legend Ron Sexsmith plays NOTL house concert

St. Catharines-born singer-songwriter offered up more than 20 songs spanning his Juno-winning, 40-plus year career to a small audience of 40 fans

Three-time Juno Award-winning singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith wowed a crowd of about 40 guests in a house concert in Niagara-on-the-Lake this weekend. 

The St. Catharines native offered a career-spanning solo set of more than 20 songs from his 17-album discography (19 if you include two independently released cassettes in the mid-1980s) at the home of Brian and Jane Andres. 

It was the 22nd house concert held at Applewood Hollow, following the likes of jazz artists John Sherwood and James Gay, pianist Mark Lalama and his trio, vocal ensemble Minuscule, Kurt Swinghammer, Kevin Breit and Hamilton’s Jacob Moon.

“All these musicians that have taken part in this and helped us along,” Brian said, “we really appreciate their talents. We don’t pay them what they are worth for these shows, but I’m sure it’s an experience that they can appreciate.”

Each of the Applewood Hollow house concerts has been a fundraiser for the late seasonal farm worker Jaleel Stewart, who was injured in a workplace accident in NOTL in 2008. After many years of fighting for WSIB coverage for his injuries with the help of the Andres family and local resident Jodie Godwin, Stewart died in Jamaica in January, just two weeks shy of his appeal to the Workers Safety Insurance Appeal Tribunal being heard. 

“He was the most exuberant and vibrant person I think we’ve ever met,” said Jane, who with Godwin visited Stewart and his family multiple times at their Jamaica home. “We fell in love with his whole family. We’re still raising money to keep his family supported and to pay for the medical bills still coming in from the hospital. This concert will help with that”

Jane recently appeared with Godwin on CBC Radio’s Fresh Air program to keep their fight for Stewart’s family in the news ahead of the upcoming National Day of Mourning for workplace injury victims in late April. 

Sexsmith’s honest, personal and heartfelt delivery of his original songs perfectly complemented the evening’s theme. 

Ron Sexsmith held the crowd's attention playing 20-plus songs spanning his entire 17-album career. | Mike Balsom

Arguably Canada’s greatest living songwriter, the 60-year-old who recently celebrated that milestone with a star-studded concert at Toronto’s Massey Hall has a way with words and melody that has been compared to and recognized by some of the best in the business. 

His compositions are often heart-aching and heart-warming at the same time, as well as introspective and contemplative. Sexsmith’s songs have been covered by Rod Stewart, Emmylou Harris, Nick Lowe and Leslie Feist, and he lists Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello and Steve Earle among some of his biggest fans..

Sexsmith opened the intimate show with It Won’t Last for Long, from his 2017 album The Last Rider, and ended it with a hilarious, yet-to-be-released song that captured his life growing up in the Western Hill neighbourhood of St. Catharines, with adults holding “a cigarette in one hand, a cocktail in the other.”

Along the way, he had his audience in stitches with stories about being sent out of class in Grade 2 at Edith Cavell Public School and accidentally serving an unknowing customer his band-aid as part of an offering during his summer job as a 17-year-old at Ye Olde Ice Cream Shoppe in NOTL. 

Before launching into the charming, upbeat  Middle of Love from his 2011 Bob Rock-produced album Long Player, Late Bloomer, Sexsmith joked, “Often I write these songs that I’m not sure if I’m the right person to sing them, but then nobody else does, so I have to. This one I wrote for (former Van Halen frontman) David Lee Roth. Do you have his number?”

After a short break, Sexsmith opened his second set sitting at the Andres’ piano. He played and sang Gold in Them Hills from his fifth album, 2002’s Cobblestone Runway, and Spring of the Following Year, the opening track from his 2020 release Hermitage, his first since moving from Toronto to Stratford, Ontario. 

Following those songs he returned to his Taylor acoustic for the remainder of the evening, which included as highlights perhaps his two best-known numbers, 2004’s Whatever it Takes, which Michael Buble covered in 2009, and Secret Heart, a song from his 1994 Interscope Records debut album. His dexterity on the fretboard was on display throughout the night, something that many in the audience, some musicians themselves, commented on.

Another highlight was In a Flash, written as a eulogy of sorts for the late musician Jeff Buckley, but this night dedicated to the more recently departed Dallas Good of the Sadies and Myles Goodwin of April Wine. And as an encore he shared the heartfelt, loving How on Earth, a request written on a napkin and left on the piano by a long-time friend. 

The gathering was also a chance for Sexsmith to spend some time over the weekend with another long-time friend, producer, musician and sound engineer Rod Morrison. Sexsmith told the story of meeting Morrison, his mentor and confidante, as a 16-year-old member of his first band, The Midnight Scribes. 

Others in the audience reminisced between sets about Sexsmith’s days as a teenager playing cover songs for revellers at the Lions Tavern in Port Dalhousie. Thirteen Juno Award nominations and more than four decades later, everyone in the audience couldn’t believe their luck at experiencing a bona-fide musical legend in such an intimate setting. 


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Mike Balsom

About the Author: Mike Balsom

With a background in radio and television, Mike Balsom has been covering news and events across the Niagara Region for more than 35 years
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