By Paul Margach
Picture this: an adoring crowd, clapping their hands and singing along to "Hallelujah," led by a most stirring preacher. But wait, something’s wrong. This so-called preacher is a little scruffy. And since when did "Hallelujah" include the lines, "What about Jesus/Didn’t he do it too?/Hang out with prostitutes/And have a drink or two." The preacher, aka Martin Sexton, may not be Billy Graham, but the show is turning people on in a soul-saving kind of way.
If Eric Clapton is God, then a Martin Sexton show is church.
Like in church, and unlike at a lot of concerts these days, Sexton encourages his audience to participate in the performance. And his fans, for their part, love it.
"What makes people want to come back to my shows," he claims, "is because they actually have a part in it."
But new fans are coming on board as well. Sexton, who plays MacEwan Hall Ballroom on Nov. 18, attributes them to both word of mouth and his willingness to play the promotional game. This year’s critically acclaimed album Wonder Bar is his second release for Atlantic Records and the singer is happy with the work the major label has done.
"[Atlantic] helped to spread the seeds further, to cultivate them and fertilize them," he explains.
Atlantic’s roster in the ’60s and ’70s included many of his influences, such as Otis Redding and John Prine, so it’s not a revelation that this marriage proved so fruitful. Given the green-light to self-produce Wonder Bar is, as Sexton admits, "more freedom than artists get this side of triple-platinum."
Ironically it was Sexton himself, and not his benevolent record company, who wanted there to be one radio-friendly single to pluck from his latest release. And while "Hallelujah" is getting some commercial air-play, it is more importantly being played by the radio stations that have supported him from the outset. Sexton says the record is "in the hands of the listeners that have come out to see me the last five years."
One of the most arresting aspects of Martin Sexton is how different he is live than on his albums. While Wonder Bar and its predecessor, 1998’s The American, featured a full, traditional lineup of guitar, bass, keyboards and drums, on stage Sexton pares it down to just him on guitar accompanied by longtime drummer Joe Bonadio. For Sexton, the difference between the stage and the studio is "like meeting Ray Charles [compared] to listening to a Ray Charles record; it’s just not the same thing."
It is clear that Sexton loves performing. For him, the live shows allow for spontaneous moments modern technology could never capture in the studio.
"You can’t record energy, you can’t record the person crying next to you or the person laughing on the other side of you," he says. "Or the tear that you cried when you were hit by some lyric."