Monday, February 16, 2009
Martin Sexton @ Town Hall, NYC, February 14th, 2009
Denise and I arrived at Town Hall a little after 9:00 for the second of Martin Sexton’s two nights at the venue. Good vibes were in the air; at the restaurant we ate at before the show, we encountered a couple half of whom told us that she had been to see Martin Sexton fifteen times—whoa! While I was in the restroom, she proceeded to ask Denise if I was a big fan…and was I obsessed? You know, like all the Martin Sexton fans?
Well, I wouldn’t say that. But I saw him in Newport once or twice. And I shelled out the money to see him at Irving Plaza on a cold night toward the end of 2001, thinking I’d meet up with a certain young woman there (didn’t work out). And this past summer, his performance was the perfect nightcap to Saturday night at Falcon Ridge, the best part of a day of performances that included Chris Smither, Dar Williams, Eddie from Ohio, and a startlingly fun set from The Nields.
Why so great? Martin Sexton is a man not of songs or arrangements or guitar pyrotechnics, but of voice. His natural instrument is a wonder to behold, an enormously gritty, elastic, soulful thing that bounced and soared around Town Hall Saturday night like lightning in a bottle. He roared and moaned and scatted and crooned and whispered and shouted and hollered and generally raised the roof with his voice. And it was clear from the opening song, “Diner” from the Black Sheep (1996) album, that he could play the jazzy guitar parts to set his voice off just right. That song was relatively tame. But “Hallelujah” (of no relation to the Leonard Cohen song of the same name) enabled the man to flex his pipes, and his voice let off enormous torrents of sound, much to the delight of an audience that cheered and clapped and, when the performer asked for it, echoed his hollering.
It would be unfair to say that he isn’t much of a songwriter but, I’ve got to say, a number of songs suffered from the sound in the room. Maybe it wasn’t the room, but there was a lot of reverberation in the vocals, which made it difficult to make out what he was singing on a number of occasions. I noticed that when he stepped back from the microphone, the problem vanished. Anyway, that was too bad. “In the Journey” is a great song, one of several great road songs Marty has written (the others being “Glory Bound” and “Freedom of the Road”). “Hallelujah” is a good one, and so is “13 Step Boogie.” “The Beast in Me” is funky and sexy. The set concluded with “Gypsy Woman,” not one of my favorites on record, but it sounded great from where I was sitting.
Denise marveled at the voice too. Or, as she pointed out, the several voices, since it really sounded like he had multiple singing (and speaking) voices. She also pointed out his musicality and his soul and his coolness vis-à-vis the audience. It sometimes seemed that he was really singing for himself. I recently read a review of one of his albums on iTunes that made that point too. True: at times, the audience participation moments seemed mechanical, as if the performer didn’t really care whether they happened or not.
I learned from listening to WFUV a few years ago that Marty had also performed with the band Assembly of Dust from time to time, and I heard an in-studio performance from them that was pretty good. Among other things, they played Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” with Martin on vocals. And I seem to recall hearing, either during the following interview or in some other context, that he was raised on classic rock. So it was cool, but unsurprising, to hear Marty intersperse themes and lyrics from old rockers, both canonical (U2’s “With or Without You” and, played in its entirety, The Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends”) and non (Led Zep’s “Since I’ve Been Loving You” and “That’s the Way”), along with a classic blues ballad (B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone”).
The stage was austerely decorated. Just an amplifier (with a lava lamp on top), two microphones, all on a plain-looking carpet. No band, no pretensions of any kind, although one of the two mikes was, Sexton told us, about 55 years (“or 65? Something like that.”). He used that second mike for some distortion effects, which were used to particularly impressive effect on “With a Little Help from My Friends.”
He sent us out into the night with a short medley comprising the opening verses of “Amazing Grace” and “America the Beautiful.” It was like a lullaby, or the gentle breeze that seems so especially welcome after the raging storm.