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Concert Review: Martin Sexton – Variety Playhouse, Atlanta, GA – 04/06/2012

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I confess that I was not familiar with Martin Sexton or his opening act Stephen Kellogg prior to receiving an invite to cover their show at Atlanta’s Variety Playhouse on April 6, 2012. After checking out Sexton on YouTube, I was so intrigued I decided to attend the show.

The Variety Playhouse is a very pleasant venue, with tables upfront for early arrivals and theater seating for those who prefer it (or arrive later). The vibe was very pleasant to begin with and Stephen Kellogg kept that vibe going with his engaging, laid-back opening set. While he usually performs with his band, The Sixers, Kellogg was solo for this gig. He did a fine job singing his sweet songs, mostly about his wife and kids and what it’s like to be a parent. 

But it was Martin Sexton who was the revelation to me. The Playhouse was full, and these people were real fans. Sexton was performing without a set list and people from all over the venue were calling out the names of songs for him to sing. So while I didn’t know him already, he does have a strong local following.

It didn’t take long to figure out why. This guy is amazing! He’s very charismatic and can get an audience involved in singing along. He knows how to tell a story, but it’s his music that had me sitting there with my mouth open, unable to take in exactly what I was hearing.

Stylistically, Sexton crosses genres, mixing blues, country, rock, folk, and jazz in his songs. He has an amazing vocal range, and can sound like Kris Kristofferson, James Taylor, and Roy Orbison – sometimes all three in the course of the same song. And he writes catchy tunes as well.

What sets Sexton apart from anyone else I’ve ever heard is his ability, with just his voice, a guitar, and a foot-operated sound effects panel to create the sound of many instruments, including drums, cymbals, and horns. It’s so realistic that if you were not watching him, you would think there was a whole band onstage. This is a technique known as “beat-bopping” and I have heard it before, but not to this extent and not with the skill that Sexton has. He literally takes that amazing voice, a second microphone, and his guitar and turns himself into a wondrous one-man band.

Without his excellent voice, ability to mix genres, and great songwriting, the beat-bopping would be nothing more than a gimmick. Combined with those elements, it is nothing short of breathtaking. It’s like watching one of the great jazz scat singers use their voice to make music, only taking it a step further with a little technology.

Frankly, I was not familiar enough with Sexton’s music in advance to know the names of all the songs, but talking with his merchandise guy yielded the names of some of the songs I liked best: “Candy,” “In the Journey,” “Thinking of You,” “Angeline,” and “Gypsy Woman,” all different and all amazing.

Sexton’s voice manages to be cool, jazzy, warm, and earthy at the same time. He can move from a growling, evocative bass to a smooth, folksy middle range, to an effortless falsetto. Add to that the incredible musical improvisations, and you have the most unique concert performance I have ever personally witnessed, and one that was a thorough delight as well.

Martin Sexton’s new EP, Falls Like Rain, is available now and contains five songs. Despite the fair price of $4.99, Sexton told the audience that anyone who was out of work (or out of money) only needed to inform the merchandise man and he would give it to them for free. How many artists have you heard make a statement like that? If you get a chance to catch Martin Sexton, do it. You’ll be glad you did.

About Rhetta Akamatsu

I am an author of non-fiction books and an online journalist. My books include Haunted Marietta, The Irish Slaves, T'ain't Nobody's Business If I Do: Blues Women Past and Present, and Sex Sells: Women in Photography and Film.