Martin Sexton at the 9:30 Club

Syracuse singer/songwriter Martin Sexton performs at the 9:30 Club in DC. Photo: Martin Sexton

WASHINGTON, February, 11, 2012 —There was the old Blues saying that a musician had to go through a certain number of tough moments in life before he could really sing the blues. The same saying essentially holds true, in essence, for any number of singer and songwriters.

It’s easy to identify notable talents when they come along, whether it’s due to an interesting song structure, engrossing lyrical narratives, or a clever turn of phrase. This holds true no matter what life experiences each individual might have had. But still, the best of them have truly lived through some hard times. 

Experiencing life’s school of hard knocks makes these artists come across as more authentic and provides an inherent depth to them that can’t necessarily be taught. The best singer/songwriters have a certain lived-in quality about them, a quality that can only be gained through age and experience, or so it seems. Case in point: When Martin Sexton walked on to the stage of the 9:30 Club on a recent Saturday night, this is the kind aura he exuded.

Sexton hails from Syracuse and is said to be one of twelve children. Having acquired his first guitar at age 14, he was on the streets of Cambridge busking less than a decade later. On the surface, that would seem to be a surefire way for a singer/songwriter to gain life experience, or at least gain a keen idea as to the kind of material audiences respond to naturally. It also speaks to the inherent work ethic of someone who makes it through early life making a haphazard living as a busker—something that’s hard for performers to translate in a live performance unless they’ve really experienced it.

This is the kind of showmanship Sexton still brings to the stage during his performances even today. He’s been doing this for going on two decades now, moving up to progressively larger stages and clearly attuned to what his audience wants at this point in his career. Still, that never cuts down on his enthusiasm in each performance. His recent performance was not a particularly energetic one, based on the standard he’s set. Yet he was certainly confident, and his stoic presence commands attention while he’s on stage.

Sexton lets other aspects of his sound create the requisite amount of energy that helps a crowd to get going. It’s easy to spot the different styles he uses in each of his songs, and it’s fairly obvious that he wears his influences on his sleeve, among them the niche styles of R&B, soul, country, and rock, or something resembling the basic templates of those genres.

What sets Sexton apart though is how he’s able to blend each of these styles effortlessly into his performance from one moment to the next. It’s not exactly an eclectic mix, because the prism through which he views and plays in all these styles in makes musical sense. But he personalizes each just enough to maintain the audience’s interest and curiosity.

What really ties the Martin Sexton show together is the quality of his voice. It’s the one truly unique and recognizable thing about him, and it has a way of making his sound that much more individualistic and intriguing. It’s also the most discussed aspect of Sexton’s musical persona, but it’s worth the effort to grasp it. His is not quite a traditional soul voice because it also possesses a bit of the quivering blues quality to it, a sound that seems to have been produced from the back of his throat. Somehow, he’s also able to mix up his vocals while retaining his approach in order to adjust to the distinct differences present in each of his songs.

Over the years, Martin Sexton has crafted a rather long and winding but successful career. He leverages his inherent musical talents to enhance the life he’s led to get himself to this point, making his personality and style all the more relatable to his audience at the 9:30 Club, who, in turn, were just as willing to respond to him in kind.

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Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer.  He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years.  Currently he lives in Vienna, VA.   He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.

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