Review and photos by Seth Rogovoy
(HUDSON, N.Y.) – Talk about your one-man band! As Martin Sexton demonstrated in his first set at Club Helsinki Hudson on Friday night, sometimes less is more – as in, one musician who can do it all. No matter how many times I’ve seen him (and as I recall, this dates back over 20 years to when he was a quietly rising star at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in Hillsdale, N.Y.), Sexton never fails to impress with his audacity of talent.
As always, Sexton made it look easy at Helsinki on Friday night as he commanded the stage solo, with just his modified acoustic/electric guitar in hand, with seemingly minimal-to-no effects, yet eliciting a huge range of sounds from his instruments – the axe slung around his shoulder and his Stradivarius of a voice, which boasts a wealth of organic, acoustic effects. On six-string guitar, Sexton simultaneously underpins his songs with a bass line, rhythm guitar, and intersperses lead runs when they are called for. On vocals, he boasts a phenomenal range, from the deepest, Ray Charles- or Louis Armstrong-like growl to a piercing tenor (and, possibly, a falsetto), and in as many different tones as there are colors in the spectrum.
Then Sexton adds to all this the human beatbox sounds he has been developing since before the term “beatbox” was invented. He has kept up with the state-of-the-art hip-hop influenced techniques, and he incorporates those, too, so that he gets a scratching sound from his guitar, a muted trumpet from his voice, and all kind of percussion noises from both.
It is for all these reasons and more that Sexton has developed a fanatical following, which is why at his sold-out concert last Friday night, he had the audience in the palm of his hand before he even took the stage (the fans gathered around me were already singing his praises as soon as they saw my pen, pad and camera), and had them singing in unison, without him, by the second song he played.
While Sexton rose through and still is an avatar of the new-folk singer-songwriter scene centered in festivals like Falcon Ridge and Newport Folk, he has another foot, or two other feet, firmly planted in soul by way of jazz and gospel. He writes swinging, complex chord progressions to highly rhythmic and percussive tunes, and he never relies on simple A-B-A blues chromatics.
At one point I wrote in my notebook, “He’s a smart musician and songwriter who knows how to grab attention and keep it – a simple, obvious lesson of jazz, R&B and rock that is too often lost on way too many post-1962 singer-songwriters.” And not 10 seconds after I completed that sentence, he sang, “Are you ready to rock and roll?”
And then a few minutes later I wrote, “Gospel may be the secret ingredient in his music – black gospel,” just before he took a song into the final stretch with a “Let me hear you say ‘Amen’,” after which the audience, indeed him hear them say it.
Sexton writes many songs close to the heart and life experience, whether it’s about teen pregnancy, fatherhood, sobriety, regrets, and spiritual transformation. A very poignant, James Taylor-ish tune tackled the difficult topic of a rift or breach between a father and son, and he made no bones about letting us know it was about his relationship with his own adult son.
If there is one weakness in Sexton’s considerable arsenal, one chink in his armor, it’s that his songwriting, for all its dazzlement and musical complexity, doesn’t always live up to his musicianship. At least in the first half of the show, there weren’t any songs – as songs themselves, divorced from Sexton’s remarkable performances – that really jumped out at a listener to make one a permanent convert. Perhaps he was saving them all for the second set, which I missed. Or perhaps he hasn’t yet really written one of those.
But with talent like his, maybe he can get away without having one.