The stage sits nearly empty, with only a basic drum kit and microphone stand occupying relatively little space. There is no hint of who or what will take the platform a few minutes later. When Martin Sexton walks on, accompanied by his longtime drummer, Joe Donnelly, New York’s Irving Plaza erupts in wild cheers. Still, for someone unacquainted with the singer-songwriter’s music or live performances, Sexton’s appearance — a slightly plump, short man in charmingly rumpled jeans and a head of shaggy shoulder-length hair — doesn’t inspire confidence. But then no one could have predicted that this Irish-Catholic boy from working-class Syracuse, N.Y., would spend almost half the year playing to sellout crowds and a major label enthusiastically behind him.
Wonder Bar, Sexton’s second release for Atlantic Records, hearkens back to Sexton’s early years busking on Boston’s sidewalks and subways. His inexperience gave him the freedom to experiment, and every sound he absorbed from Seventies’ Top 40 AM radio (“I would sleep with it on”) and free-form FM radio seemed to flow from his voice and battered guitar. One of his favorites was Van Morrison, whose eclecticism Sexton echoes. “I do look to him,” Sexton says. “I like how he digs into his roots and his soul. He’s not afraid to play fun, joyful music. He’s not too cool for that.”
Neither is Sexton. His live shows are emotional and interactive; the audiences sing along and dance, and fans shout out suggestions that they fully expect Sexton, ever the crowd-pleaser, to play. He unabashedly mixes folk, rhythm & blues, jazz, boogie woogie and rock into his songs, moving from the jump blues of “13 Step Boogie,” from his first record, 1990’s In the Journey (“The best 800 bucks I’ll every spend,” Sexton says) to the emotional, Latin-tinged folk of “She Cries and Sings,” from his latest. Although a versatile acoustic guitarist and competent harmonica player, Sexton’s voice is what draws listeners in. His tenor seduces with a mournful mellowness or elicits yelps of glee with a raspy blues shout or impresses with an enviable falsetto. “I just let it flow,” says Sexton. “It’s something that comes naturally to me. I think, earlier on, I was a bit of a sponge. I have good hearing, I really listen well, and I’m one of the more observant people that I know.”
The tenth of twelve children, Sexton grew up the black sheep of his family, opting for wild times in his teens and twenties. But these days the sober thirty-four-year-old splits his time between the road and his home in western Massachusetts with his family. “I’m not constantly on the road,” says Sexton. “When I’m home, I’m really there, and when I’m not there, I’m keeping in touch. When I’m not a touring artist, I’m pretty much being a dad.” Mining memories and experiences — not always his own — for material, he offers intimate snapshots of everyday living and loving, and like Ani DiFranco, PJ Harvey and Tom Waits, his albums reflect a particular time and place without sounding dated.
Wonder Bar is named for an eatery in a working-class section of Worcester, Mass., at which Sexton wrote most of the songs. “Sixty percent of my songs are right out of my memory and my life,” Sexton offers. “And the other forty percent is taking bits and pieces from other situations that I’ve observed but haven’t lived first-hand.”
At Irving Plaza, Sexton’s set offers regret (Wonder Bar‘s “Where Did I Go Wrong”), lust (“Gypsy Woman,” from his second indie, Black Sheep) and doubt (“Caught in the Rain Again,” also from Black Sheep), but it’s all tempered by his pure joy at being onstage. “Even in the darkest situation I can still feel a sense of hope,” he says. “As long as I listen to my own inner voice and heart and not pay a lot of attention to what outside influences are trying to get me to yield to.”
Live, Sexton and drummer Joe Donnelly produce a remarkably rich, full sound. Sexton, who never follows a set list, says he has no plans to add to the duet format. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he says. “I wanted to keep this tour so that it has spontaneity, an unrehearsed feel. I play whatever I feel like. People shout out tunes, it gives me ideas. I make shit up, or we’ll whip out a cover in the middle of one tune and kind of freak out on it.”
About the only thing Sexton refuses, it seems, are labels. “I don’t just sing blues or folk or jazz,” he says. “I don’t hate the labels, but I just find it limiting. [Just] as long as they spell my name right.”