October 15, 2010
Touring behind his most recent release, Sugarcoating, Martin Sexton continues to take his audiences by the spiritual throat with his whimsical and authentic lyrics and his quirkily isolated stage presence.Â Sexton brought his one man simplicity to Birmingham, AL on a recent Friday night to a crowd of mostly thirty-somethings to provide them with what was more of a directive for respite and passive introspection than a straightforward concert.
With songs about life, love, failure, and success, WorkPlay Theater in Birmingham dealt Sexton a perfect hand for his offerings. With cloth covered and candlelit tables adorning the immediate space before the stage and a semi-circular “in the round” setting of large cloth booths that were dimly lit by overhead lamps, Sexton himself would later comment that he would have loved to “have had a first date here.” In other words, the venue was a beautiful compliment to the beauty that was coming through the air. Of course the days of dating are long gone for this man who seems as equally committed to his home life as he is his road life, which was evidenced by his mention of both wife and two year old son multiple times throughout the evening.
Opening the night was 18-year-old Cara Salimando. If her short performance at WorkPlay is any indicator, Salimando is an artist on the rise. Reminiscent of a young Vanessa Carlton with a dash of Regina Spektor laced with Tori Amos, Salimando grasped the audience’s attention with immediacy through her commandeering of the ivory, and although introverted, an idiosyncratic stage presence. One could easily make the assumption that music is her therapy and the validity that shone through her passionately crafted lyrics and songbird voice made for an instantaneously smitten spectator. While there were certainly teenaged elements to the music itself, she gets a pass because well, she is a teenager; but one who possesses a musical insight that is far beyond her years. Earlier in the day, she tweeted that she was “having barbecue with Martin Sexton. He is the nicest man in the world.” He would be up next.
Martin Sexton is a singer, songwriter, and musician. However, while his talents are numerous, one thing that never left the mind during this set was the fact that he is a man. Perhaps this glaring trait is what makes him so affable. His genuineness shines, personal flaws and all, which makes his music bona fide and resonating.
Inconspicuously making his way to the stage with guitar already in hand, Sexton greeted the crowd and thanked them for the “Dreamland Barbecue” before strolling into the opening number, “Glory Bound.” From the initial brush guitar technique to the beautifully sung lyric, “I was hauling ass at a million miles an hour wondering how hard I would hit,” the setting was laid for a night that would be filled with integrity, honesty, and cajones. The evening would make it all too evident that this is a man with pain seeded in his past, but also one who has found redemption and lived to sing about it to whoever will listen. This audience just happened to be to whom he was telling the story on this given night.
Following an introduction to a song that he disclosed was about an unplanned pregnancy that he played a role in with “Love Keep Us Together,” Sexton offered the title track to his latest release. Asking his front of house engineer to make him sound “like Johnny Cash circa 1966,” Marty launched into “Sugarcoating.” With an upbeat tempo that is steeped in Americana, this song is Sexton’s plea for confrontational realism in our interactions with others. However, it manages to come across as fun more than anything that even resembles a political or relational ballad. Musically the tune spawned, in classic Bible Belted fashion, Alabamian clapping along to the beat as they would at a Southern Baptist service. Images of being at a county fair with women fanning themselves while men use their handkerchief to wipe the sweat from their brow caused by the tapping of their toes fleeted throughout this tune that would fittingly come to a close with an A Cappella first stanza of “Amazing Grace.” A vocally swinging number in “Diggin’ Me” that came complete with a jazz drumbeat that Sexton created vocally and yielded a yodeling session would bless the audience next and was met with delighted cheers from the listeners.
After many stories that preceded the narratives in the songs themselves, including Sexton’s describing how he once wanted to be a “stunt actor,” more lamenting about southern barbecue, and encouraging of others to go toward their dreams. Subsequently he played “Livin the Life,” which would be succeeded by the most telling moment of the evening that came with Sexton’s story that preceded “My Maria.”
“I am not a religious man. I remember being a kid and having to say The Rosary,” Marty began. “I remember looking around wondering why everyone took it so seriously,” he continued. “You know why?” he questioned. “Because it didn’t mean a goddamned thing to me” he whispered. “It didn’t mean a goddamned thing to me then and it doesn’t mean a goddamned thing to me now,” he said in a more assertive tone. He then unapologetically informed the crowd of where he derives his spirituality by quoting the eleventh step of the twelve-step recovery program. “I am a spiritual man. I seek through prayer and meditation to improve my conscious contact with God as I understand Him,” he humbly offered. Referring to the venue and gesturing with arms wide open, he affirmed: “This place is my church.” To say it was a telling moment would perhaps be one of the larger understatements one could make, as his statement solidified the redemptive elements contained within his soulful and lyrically driven songs and served as an endorsement to his overall humble persona.
After an encore performance of the full version of “America the Beautiful,” the night would come to a close, but not before many in the crowd found themselves engaging strangers to discuss the night’s performance. Comments overheard were “bold,” “refreshing,” and “genuine.” And this truly sums it up. Martin Sexton marched into the Deep South, said “goddamn” in the same sentence as religion, and was appreciated.