Martin Sexton, Amos Southend Brewery, Charlotte, NC- 10/25
Martin Sexton may not look like he descended from heaven. He comes on stage looking more like an out-of-work Elvis impersonator than an angel. But don’t let his minimalist band and scruffy attire fool you, Martin Sexton’s voice is on loan from above. He is a full on gospel choir. He is a bluesman and a rockstar. He is an array of horns and beats and ideas. He is an ever changing medley of all of his vocal talents. And he does it all with a smile.
I took a friend of mine to see Martin Sexton at Amos’ Southend Brewery in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was his first experience with Sexton, and he kept saying “Man, this guy is America.” Stylistically, Sexton is boundless, incorporating gospel and funk, jazz and blues, folk and rock, country and soul. Even minute traces of hip hop and bluegrass worked their way into his repertoire. He is a guy with a guitar, sometimes with band mate and drummer Joe Bonadio, sometimes alone, and he works his way through styles like a DJ at a NYE party in the heart of Brooklyn. My friend told me that Sexton was incorporating everything real and true in American music. He didn’t have to convince me, I already knew.
Sexton was playing to an excited crowd on this rainy Thursday night, and he was loving every minute of it. He played a lot off of his new album, Seeds. I have been listening to Seeds a lot for the last few weeks in anticipation of this show and it was great to hear him tear a few of these tracks apart and put them back together anew. He asked us to “wish him luck here” as he put down his guitar and moved over to the keyboard on stage. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but as he plunged into the first couple of chords from “Happy,” the opening track on Seeds, I knew that everything was going to be okay. His big chords and simple melodies immediately conjured images of Ray Charles and we knew that Sexton had tapped into something powerful. It is a gospel piece if any rock and roll song ever was, and I was disappointed to see him walk away from the keys after only one song.
Sexton is full of surprises. At one point, he showed us what he could do on the drums. It was a breakdown that could have been part of an Umphrey’s McGee set as well as any 70’s Dead show. It started with Sexton banging on his guitar, and ended with him walking over to the drum set and grabbing an extra pair of sticks. Bonadio had some crazy pieces on his kit, including an old propane tank and what looked to be a rusted watering can. Sexton went straight for them. It sounded rehearsed, but I’m betting that like any good band, they never do it the same way twice. At one point, he plowed into the lower registers of his 6-string which he plays like a bass. He looked down at the crowd and said “ok, come on.” I was confused, all the more so as a guy literally scrambled his way from the floor onto the stage. It didn’t take long for it to make sense. The guy had a harmonica out and blaring before he even hit the microphone. They raged through some blues changes, before Martin and his new band mate started trading solos. It could have been rehearsed and played all tour if I hadn’t seen him pull the guy out of the audience. It was a welcome addition to a night full of surprises.
After a solid set of music, Sexton exited the stage. When he came back on, it was alone. He quietly picked out the chords a few times and then joined in with the vocal accompaniment to a favorite encore of his, “Amazing Grace.” After a scant verse or two, he intensified the feel and had a hallelujah church sing-along going at full effect. The crowd was yelling “amen” and everybody was ready for something big. Bonadio came back to his set and the two of them moved seamlessly into “Black Sheep.” They played a rocking version and before I knew it, they were doing a hard and fast take on “Lovelight.” We might have wanted more, but we had been moved. We had been rocked and rolled, funked and souled. As he left the stage, I realized my friend was right. Martin Sexton is America. It's time for the rest of the nation to take notice.