Nothing too clean

Blue-eyed soul man Martin Sexton’s astounding multi-octave voice has left critics fawning since he busted out of busking the streets and subway stations of Boston, where he honed his admittedly impressive chops.

Acoustic Guitar raved, “[Sexton] is a master of dynamics, reducing a room to silence with his blustering baritone, then teasing that silence with a fluttering falsetto.”

The Boston Globe gushed, “Martin Sexton is ripe with raw, explosive talent. His voice comes in a hundred impossible shades.”

The singer/songwriter himself, however, waxes decidedly more humble. Of his 2000 release, Wonder Bar (Atlantic), he simply said, “I wanted the record to sound natural — a little sweaty with some fat on it, nothing too clean. There are a lot of little mistakes on there, which I think are beautiful.”

Sexton’s down-to-earth vibe is even evidenced by his method of transportation on the road: Don’t look for him in a super-deluxe tour bus replete with wet bar and plasma TV. Instead he tows his equipment in a road-worn SUV, pulling a trailer emblazoned with refrigerator magnets from all the states he’s passed through.

The world at large first heard Sexton’s unashamedly emotional voice and powerhouse licks (he prefers odd guitar tunings) on his initial studio recording, 1993’s Black Sheep (Eastern Front), which remains the favorite of many diehard fans.

Black Sheep echoed his years of paying dues first on the streets, then in tiny roadhouses, and finally through a collection of demos he self-produced in 1992. Even before Black Sheep‘s release, though, Sexton had earned a passel of Boston Music Awards, not to mention the National Academy of Songwriters “Artist of the Year” award. The title song is a heart-wrenching stunner about Sexton’s decision to leave his hometown of Syracuse, N.Y., and follow his older brother to Boston. Once there, Martin waited tables and began to immerse himself in the city’s vibrant street-performer scene.

“Harvard Square,” he remembers, “outside in the warmer months at night, basically 8 to 11 — it was brilliant. And it was a great community of players. We would watch out for one another. It was such an inspirational time. … We were really like brothers and sisters. And I started writing at that time, because I didn’t really have any songs, and I figured I didn’t really want to sing ‘Brown-Eyed Girl.'” (Asked later to describe his own sound, however, Sexton tellingly remarked, “I’d like to think of it in the vein of … Van Morrison.”)

For years classified as a folkie, Sexton, thanks to his undeniable blue-collar edge, is finally shrugging off that yoke. After all, his music — being more of a goodhearted, if uncommonly gifted, rock-and-soul blend rather than your typical, stay-in-one-place strumming — has always been far removed from traditional folk.

In 2001 alone, Sexton logged 80,000 road miles. The culmination of those travels is a two-disc live record, Live Wide Open, the maiden release of Sexton’s Kitchen Table Records, a label he formed after parting ways with Atlantic. Among a true cornucopia of musical styles and sounds (from the soulful “In the Journey” to the down-home “13 Step Boogie” to the be-bopping “Ice Cream Man”) is a goose-bump-raising version of “Amazing Grace” that should forever set to rest the folkie label.

It’s a fitting anthem for Sexton: On stage, the singer’s zeal can border on the evangelical (he’s a lapsed Catholic, for the record).

“So much of what I do,” he once mused, “is about joy, and I think that’s why people enjoy it like they do, because whenever I see an artist, anyone … a mailman or a plumber, and there’s joy in what they’re doing, you just like ’em more. They’re just more attractive.”

[Freelance writer Marsha Barber is a regular contributor to Xpress.]

Martin Sexton plays Stella Blue (31 Patton Ave.; 236-2424) at 9 p.m. on Thursday, April 22. Colleen Sexton opens. Tickets cost $17 ($15/advance).

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