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When it comes to sweet-hearted balladeers, the singular Sexsmith is Canada’s invisible man.Kerry Vergeer/Supplied

An audience sang Happy Birthday to Ron Sexsmith at Massey Hall on Thursday. It wasn’t his birthday, quite – the cherished singer-songwriter was born on Jan. 8, 1964, in St. Catharines. Because Massey Hall wasn’t available on Jan. 8, 2024, Sexsmith celebrated his 60 years on Earth belatedly, on leap day as it happened.

Because it occurs only once every four years, leap day can be considered a free day – a strange day out of phase with the normal calendar, and a day when unordinary things could and should happen. “So it was that on the 29th day of February, at the beginning of the thaw,” H.G. Wells wrote in his 1897 sci-fi novel The Invisible Man, “this singular person fell out of infinity into Iping Village.”

When it comes to sweet-hearted balladeers, the singular Sexsmith is Canada’s invisible man.

If you don’t believe me, ask him. On his X account, the songwriter’s songwriter occasionally laments his standing. Recently the three-time Juno Award winner pointed out that he had not been nominated for one of those trophies since 2014. And festival bookers ignore him, he claims. “Sometimes it feels like I’m the outcast of the Canadian music scene,” he summed it up on social media this week.

He may have a point. Why this melodic savant and lyrical empath isn’t Canada’s James Taylor is an open question. Is he underappreciated? Maybe, but there were dozens of music industry people in the audience paying their respects at Massey Hall. So many complimentary tickets, one wonders whether promoter Live Nation turned a profit on the night.

The crowd applauded Sexsmith warmly when he walked on stage. The main attraction patted his heart in response. The heart! It’s his best weapon, more potent even than his catchy songcraft and pleasing, dulcet tenor.

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Ron Sexsmith at Toronto's Danforth Music Hall, on March 29, 2022.Supplied

Though his band would soon join him, he began solo with an acoustic guitar on For a Moment, a light ballad from the 2002 album Cobblestone Runaway. It’s about the spirituality of music, a reoccurring theme throughout his songbook.

I could hear it in the sky above

In the streets below me

I could hear it in the songs of love

Just enough to show me

There was a light somewhere, somewhere

Over the next two hours or so, the 60-year-old troubadour soothed an audience with charming songs of love, doubt and hope. The material fell under the heading of unhurried folk rock, light sixties pop (Burt Bacharach meets Ray Davies) and mid-seventies McCartney-inspired music. There was a comfortable mellowness and sentimentality to it all. Though he offered cuts from his latest album, last year’s The Vivian Line, this was a career retrospective.

He talked about being dropped by a record label at one point in his career, which caused him to focus on writing songs for other artists for a bit. He said his publisher had unsuccessfully pitched one (Foolproof) to Diana Krall and another (Heavenly) to Nikki Yanofsky. At Massey, guest Lori Cullen sang them both, with Sexsmith accompanying.

“Ron is a good songwriter,” Cullen told the crowd between numbers. “I feel we’re all on the same page here.”

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Why this melodic savant and lyrical empath isn’t Canada’s James Taylor is an open question.Blue Boy/Supplied

Mostly, yes. Elton John and Elvis Costello are fans. Leslie Feist and Rod Stewart have covered his songs. New Yorker magazine has always supported Sexsmith, even if they once used the word “platitudinous” to describe his lyrics. (And fair enough there.)

Midway through the second set, Sexsmith rolled out what he cheekily referred to as “the songs you all grew up with.” Included were Whatever It Takes, Secret Heart and Brandy Alexander. They could have been hits in a number of different eras.

He said he wrote 1991′s Speaking With the Angel for his son, two years old at the time. It’s about innocence and being in tune with something unworldly, and it could just as well be about the songwriter himself.

He presented as thoroughly guileless – a gentle, sincere, intelligent creature dropped out of the sky from infinity, in his words, “half-man/half-melody.” Sexsmith, though one of this country’s greatest songwriters, was not built for today’s music industry. That is no fault of his own. In fact, quite the opposite.

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