Martin Sexton : Grand Central Station, New York, NY 4/22/2006

Take a jackal, an angel, a six-pack of cheap beer, a pack of matches, an ashtray, the Hope Diamond, some earth, some wind and a firecracker with a long fuse. Now, kindly stuff them into a huge burlap sack.

What results might remind you of Martin Sexton’s voice.

Sexton dropped in to New York for the Earth Day weekend festivities, playing a short set on Friday evening. The show was free – the second time I have seen him play for free in the past year. I’d pay more to see Sexton than probably anyone else, but I love the fact that he doesn’t make me do that. It makes me appreciate him all the more.

The stage was set on Vanderbilt Avenue right alongside historical (and somewhat humbling) Grand Central Station. The setting for the show was meek, with a small stage and a crowd that was much smaller than you would think. As usual, though, Sexton’s cherub-banshee vocals made it all seem bigger.

He was alone onstage. While this may not be unusual, the reason for it is: he simply doesn’t need anyone else. The man’s voice box is more like a jack-in-the-box, a forceful but pleasant surprise waiting to spring. All Sexton needs is a guitar and his vocal chords, and he can turn these into a bongo, a trumpet, or a band of drunken minstrels. He creates a morphing, unpredictable soundscape with the simple tools he has on hand—a musical MacGyver picking the locks of limitation right there before your eyes.

Sexton’s set certainly did not surprise—he went with standbys like “Faith on the Table,” “Glory Bound” and “Beast in Me” the way he has so many times before. Having not come out with an album of new material since 2000’s Wonder Bar, there is a dearth of fresh tunes to belt. Luckily for his audience, he doesn’t need new songs – because every song is treated differently each time he sings it. He transforms the usual into the unique with every shudder and shift of his once-in-a-generation voice.

It appeared that much of the crowd wasn’t familiar with his music, based on their blithe lack of attention to the stage. He saved me from having to shake each of them like a petulant child by launching into “The Way I Am.” This is the song of his that demands attention; you don’t often see a gruff, side-burned guy that looks like he just got off his shift on the assembly line bust out in yodels. It’s Sexton’s one-song hook, his show-off tune–his way of inveigling the uninitiated with the subtle subtext: “This is how I do it. Settle in, and listen up.” I like watching him corral a restless crowd into with the power of his pipes.

The appropriate closer to his set (only about 40 minutes total) was “America the Beautiful,” the iconic anthem that he sang with such force on his album Black Sheep. Many artists these days would introduce this song with an acerbic diatribe on the state of the union, but Sexton took a different tack. With an undertone that conveyed the need for change, he said that we were lucky to live in a “great nation, with a great opportunity to be an example to the world.” And then he sang of amber waves of grain, and purple mountains—and as his highs and lows bounced off of the walls of Grand Central Station, I got chills.

That’s not something that happens at most free concerts.

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