Maybe you remember the kid with the orange transistor radio taped to his bike, listening to Casey's Coast to Coast while delivering the Sunday paper. At night, the radio went under the pillow and the music soaked in in a way that never took with algebra and U.S. history.
Turns out he's Martin Sexton, and he's playing his unique folk-rock-boogie at Colorado College this Sunday. "I grew up as a little child listening to the AM radio," Sexton told the Indy in a phone interview last week from a tour stop in California. "I used to sleep with the radio on. And all this music would go through my head, all that pop music of the early '70s."
There's no escaping the bone-deep influences Sexton draws on with Wonder Bar. "It's in my sauce," he said of the '70s-era singer/songwriter rock he echoes. "I didn't specifically go after a particular period, but I did want to make a record that had the warmth of something that might have come out of 1973," an era he describes as "a little funky. Soulful. Almost carefree. Fun loving."
It's roots music, according to Sexton. Not roots in a folky, traditional way, but roots in the common musical heritage that anyone who ever came of age in America has in common. "My roots," he calls the music. "Led Zeppelin and The Beatles, The Doors and Jimi Hendrix and all that meat and potatoes rock 'n' roll that we all grew up listening to."
Sexton still remembers his own musical rite of passage, cementing a musical identity as enduring and defining as his thumbprint. "That probably was listening to Frampton Comes Alive on the headphones as a small child," said Sexton, recalling the critical imprinting event of listening to his older brother's record up in the attic. "I was about eight years old. It just blew my mind, the sound of that record, and the sound of the crowd, the guitar playing, the musicianship, the great rock/pop songs. Then listening to some Stevie Wonder and listening to The Beatles through grammar school. They kind of lit my fire."
Sexton started out as a busker in the subways at Harvard Square, surviving the frying pan of the street musician scene, developing style and confidence -- and a bedrock musical sensibility -- while capturing the attention of innocent underground passersby. In 1992 he produced a homemade cassette called In The Journey and sold 25,000 copies of it out of his guitar case, helping to earn him Outstanding Male Vocalist and Outstanding Male Songwriter in the Boston Music Awards, as well as a 1994 award as Artist of the Year from the National Academy of Songwriters. He later released an independent label album, Black Sheep, and in 1998 he made his major label debut with The American.
Until recently, much of Sexton's critical acclaim has focused on his singing. "The voice is always there," Sexton said. "The voice is the most important thing about what I do. There's no getting around it. It's me."
Things may change with Wonder Bar, an easy pick as one of the year's best albums. Every one of the vocal intricacies on the richly layered album is his, including back-up harmonies and vocal jamming between verses, but it's the album's blending of irresistible grooves, weighty lyrical ideas and textured musicianship that makes it stand out as a beautiful work of art.
The album hits the carefree, fun-loving side of Sexton's musical character in the first groove. "Angeline" came to Sexton and songwriting partner Ned Claflin "while meandering through the Canadian Rockies. We got the tune three-quarters of the way finished up in Banff at Lake Louise and then we put in the middle eight at the Wonder Bar."
The Wonder Bar is the New England restaurant where Sexton and Claflin go during off hours to work on songs together. All of their co-written songs were born at the Wonder Bar, and if it seems unusual for a pair of songwriters to chose such a public place to work, Sexton assures that "we're usually the only people there. There might be one other party in the dark corner. It's actually very private, which is very cool. I couldn't write in a busy, bubbling, hip restaurant. This is a dark sort of brown pizzeria in Worchester, Mass. Micki is the 80-year-old waitress who just loves us and brings us our pies, our coffees. You sit there and just write at Booth #6."
Although his songs usually take multiple sittings to complete, once in a while they are delivered intact. One of the album's most powerful cuts -- the kind of song that reinforces his reputation for his "meat and potatoes" spirituality -- is called "Real Man," a slow burning anthem of "the deal made between weakness and shame."
"This one was more a gift from God," Sexton explained of the song's creation in Turtle Creek Barn, the fabled Bearsville Studio in upstate New York where everyone from The Band to Dave Matthews and Jewel have recorded. "I just showed up in Woodstock in the barn where we were recording and I was all alone in the middle of the night playing this old Wurlitzer electric piano. I was just playing these chords and humming this melody and making words up. There was a pen and pad right there on the Wurli, and I just wrote 'em down and out came the song. We recorded it the next day."
Divine accidents like that were made possible by Sexton's decision to produce the album for himself -- something he hadn't tried since his days busking in the subway. "It was like a dream gig. It was great being my own boss. I had the freedom to chase down ideas until 3 a.m., whereas on other records I wouldn't take all that time."
Among the gems chased down on Wonder Bar is "Faith on the Table," a pure piece of fun draped in the B-3 organ's sense of Sunday morning spiritual. Sexton takes the neglected ingredients of faith, hope and sanity off the shelf and stirs them into a duel of vocal scatting and guitar leads, hitting that rock gospel groove that makes riverside revival preachers out of the likes of Van Morrison and Otis Redding. It's unfailingly upbeat, making it impossible for you to disassociate the virtues of the lyrics with the uplifting instinct to shake it up and rattle a tambourine.
"Hallelujah," the album's first single, makes hip observational philosophy out of speculations about Satan at the Dairy Queen and angels holding aces at a table in Las Vegas. Over and over again, Sexton pulls it off, serving up a helping of the secular spirituality that so many crave from their musical wise men. He evokes the smooth musicianship of Boz Skaggs on tracks like "She Cries and Sings," but he never strays too far from the lyric power of a latter-day Cat Stevens, making parables out of pop songs.
"I just dig old stuff," Sexton said by way of summarizing everything from his musical taste to his love of the vintage recording equipment in the Turtle Creek Barn. "I wear old clothes. I eat at old restaurants. They just made it right, 20 and 30 years ago. They just made it right."