I went with a friend to see Martin Sexton at the Calvin a couple weeks back for his tour-ending show, and it was tough going.
Though his most recent album didn't make me "happy," I'd enjoyed some of his other releases, and so many friends had told me about his amazing shows that I figured it was worth a try. But as soon as he hit the stage and addressed the audience as his "Brothers and Sistahs" I knew I was in trouble.
Before I elaborate, to be fair, the sound was not all it should have been. From my seat in the balcony, his vocals were cranked way too high, and I could barely make out his lyrics. This isn't typical for the Calvin, and while I'm certain it contributed to my aggravation, it was far from the only reason the show made me feel so uncomfortable.
Watching Sexton at work was a little like watching a movie for which I'd already seen the best bits in the trailer. I already knew the guy used to make his living busking on the streets of Cambridge, and how he fancied himself a sort of folk-gospel star. And from his first moments on stage, this persona seemed to be mostly what he was pedaling. The songs all felt like an excuse for letting Martin just be Martin on stage.
No doubt: the man is talented. As one young lady swooned as we exited the theater, "The way he can make his mouth sound like a trumpet or an electric guitar, or, or... it's supernatural." But for all his yodelling and old-man impersonations, I often found myself thinking these talents would be much better exercised on a street corner to crowds of passers-by, than center-stage to an audience. On the street, he'd be impossible to ignore, and after five minutes, I'd likely throw some pocket change into his guitar case before I was on my way, but this full-on dose of Sexton was too much. Knowing he already had our attention, he made no attempt (it seemed to me) to charm us, and he just flew through his set, soaking up the adoration in between numbers. Oh, the humility!
The most wince-worthy moment of the night was when he had the band come downstage with him and play an acoustic set on found-objects. To commemorate the man in black's passing, they played "Folsom Prison Blues." It was the first rendition of the song I'd ever heard done as a joke. Smirking though it, Martin didn't seem to understand how sad the song was; he had listened carefully enough to know that Johnny Cash drops his voice down low when he sings "just to watch him die," and this he was able to mimick, but not without a side-long wink and smile.
And at that moment, I figured out what was driving me nuts: the guy's got musical talent up the whazoo, but the gimmicks act as a mask, rather than an enhancement. More than blues or folk, this Sexton comes from the school of zippidy-doo-dah.
-- Mark Roessler