Martin Sexton.

EDITED (9/07/11): Found this amazing video of Martin performing his song “Hallelujah” live. Please watch. His voice makes my heart feel things.

Last night we had the pleasure of seeing Martin Sexton play a solo show at the Iowa State Fair. I haven’t seen a show as good as his in years.

I’ve known about Martin for a long time. I think my first exposure was probably about 10 years ago, when a cool older kid in youth group who liked weird music introduced Joel and I to the song “Candy.” I’ve listened to him on and off since then, never really falling in love a particular record but enjoying a variety of his songs. This concert opened up a whole new side of his music that I’d never really caught before.

This guy has absolutely one of the most soulful sounds around. His stuff is very Americana without crossing over completely into just straight folk music. I don’t want to call it “rock,” but that seems most fitting. It’s like heartland rock and roots rock and blues rock all jumbled with just the slightest pinch of jazz (he scats from time to time). A lot of songs are very anthemic, but not Coldplay anthemic, more like pre-Born To Run Springsteen anthemic. Very everyman music, like music you’d listen to driving in a dusty old pickup truck, driving towards the Rocky Mountains on a lonely two-lane highway as dusk sets in. It’s stuff to sing along to.

He pulls this sound off perfectly in concert. It is incredible to see him perform; he transforms his guitar into the most rhythmic machine and pulls sounds out of it I can’t describe. The first thing I noticed when he started to play was just how percussive he was able to make his guitar. He didn’t need anybody along with him because he made his one instrument sound like seven instruments. And this was no convoluted guitar pedal manipulation, he just manages to coax an insane array of sounds, both rhythmic and melodic, out of his guitar, as he’s singing some crazy lyrical rhythms. With just his voice and guitar, he creates these incredible musical atmospheres that pour over you. Really amazing stuff.

I’ve never heard a guy sing like this. He has almost a Jack Black-ish voice, but if Jack Black was about seven times better and had the most incredible falsetto ever. Seriously, I don’t know how Martin does it, but his falsetto is just so solid. Not a hint of waver, he is as solid singing falsetto as he is singing with his gut. A fitting example would be the song “The Way I Am.” In this song, he does this part that is very nearly a yodel, but he transcends into this stirring amalgam of breath and melody, hitting notes just shy of lederhosen. He’s actually released two recorded versions of this song, one on his debut album In The Journey and another on his 1998 album The American. I enjoy the earlier version better because you can hear less production on it. He went into a booth and played his guitar and sang into a microphone and behind him you can hear the silence in the studio. He turns a great song into a chilling performance.

I would absolutely recommend going to see him if you get the chance. Something else I noticed in his show was how socially minded he seems to be. A lot of his lyrics have a slight spiritual undertone, and they seem to be very much pro-love. Only a few of his songs hit a bit of a political tone, but without getting overtly pro-left/right he hits more on this social theme of making the world a better place. Depending on what side you fall on, you can interpret it as either right or left. But rather than taking sides in a futile debate of “Which party is better?” his songs promote love and peace and the well-being of humanity. In a society where that worldview might be often touted but rarely acted out, it’s refreshing and inspiring to hear these songs.

Martin is phenomenal. I hope you get a chance to see him, or buy a record, or somehow get his music in your head. And I’ll leave you with this song, which was his encore at the show we saw. As much as I hate fan-made videos, this song is too good to pass up.

Enjoy.

-Jon

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