The first time I heard of Martin Sexton, it was in college circa 1998. A member of my vocal group had arranged an acappella cover of his song “Love Keep Us Together.” It was a beautiful arrangement, and I loved singing the background tenor 2 part every time our music director called it. Ironically, I hadn’t even heard Martin’s recording to that point …it was the composition itself, the tender lyrical and melodic groove of that music, handwritten for voices, on creased music paper … that was enough to get me to fall in love with Martin Sexton’s songwriting.
I started to delve into, and keep track of, Martin Sexton’s repertoire over the years. By any standard, he is a pretty unique recording artist. Once named the “Artist of the Year” by The National Academy of Songwriters, his music is influenced by a gamut of musical genres. Jazz, blues, rock, soul, folk … he’s a chameleon that way, and the substance of his 11 albums since 1992 reflects the diversity of those influences.
When I saw that Martin Sexton was playing the El Rey, and never having been able to see him perform live even though he has a superb reputation as a live performer, I decided to purchase tickets to see the show.
Sometimes you don’t truly realize how good (or bad) a vocalist is until you see them perform live. What sets Martin apart from a lot of musicians these days is that he can carry a set all by himself. Just him, his guitar, and his amazingly gifted voice.
Martin had the opening act, Brothers McCann, join him on stage for a handful of songs, and their tight three part harmonies really added to the Martin’s compositions. He also had composer Ned Claflin join him on stage for a performance of the song “Diner”, which they co-wrote, jokingly prefacing the performance by saying that this song is like a battle between a, “Big Bob’s steak burger and Elvis … and the burger wins.” He played several of the new songs from his latest release “Mixtape of the Open Road” and before playing “Virginia” mentioned that it was a song for his mom, and that he had recently played it for her over the phone.
His set also included “Golden Road”, “Freedom of the Road”, “Can’t Stop Thinkin’ Bout You” and “Bye Bye Black Sheep”, among others. My personal favorites were “Love Keep Us Together” (of course) and “Where Did I Go Wrong With You” … man, that chorus gets me every single time.
It’s a shame that the venue didn’t sell out, because those in attendance were treated to a performance that exhibited the pure of joy singing from the heart. Martin Sexton, whether crooning, belting or yodeling, gave his fans the kind of honest, emotional outpouring through song that so very few artists nowadays are capable of.
I went to the soundboard to see if they had a copy of the evening’s setlist for me to photograph. The person behind the boards whispered to me, “He doesn’t use a set list.” It doesn’t surprise me. I’ve never heard of a heart needing one.