IN TUNE: When people ask Martin Sexton the secret to his sound, he told a sold-out City Winery crowd, he says, “Lots of volume.”
Sexton could just as well have mentioned plenty of versatility, color and raw talent — which combined made for yet another set of joyous, rollicking, sold-out shows at the Varick Street venue this Easter weekend.
There’s his beat-box guitar playing, sometimes with both hands plucking at either end of the fretboard, sometimes with neither as he bongos a rhythm.
Then there’s his occasional DADGAD guitar tuning, which produces a bassy sound more commonly found in Celtic music and long a favorite of Jimmy Page, Richard Thompson, David Gilmour, Trey Anastasio and Jeff Tweedy, among others.
And there are those pipes.
After 25 years of performing — and what are now 150+ shows a year — Sexton’s voice still soars, dips and dives through wide and varied shadings.
He can sustain a note longer than most humans, he can scat like Louis or Ella, and he can mimic actual instruments — which on fan-favorite “13-Step Boogie” is a muted cornet.
The tenth of 12 kids, Sexton once had a corporate job but chucked it, then moved from Syracuse to Boston, where he began busking at train stations and playing small clubs.
“The bars were tough,” he said during the late half of a Saturday night double-header at City Winery. “I’d be onstage playing and someone would yell, ‘Touchdown!’ “
What has set Sexton apart is his gentle unpretentiousness. You can’t fake real, as they say.
Singing from the heart made it easy for him to segue sweetly between songs Saturday night, layering his own originals with snippets from “The End” (the Doors), “I’ve Got a Feeling” (the Beatles) and “Goodbye To Romance” (Ozzy), among others, while laying down a warm version of “With a Little Help From My Friends,” a steamy “Since I’ve Been Loving You” (Led Zep) and the familiar sing-along to Prince’s plaintive “Purple Rain.”
As always, Sexton reworked a few tunes, turbo-charging the already-fleet “Diner” and flipping the poppy “Angeline” and peppy “Things You Do to Me” into bluesier numbers. “The Beast in Me,” set to a hip-hop beat, was nearly unrecognizable at first — a real treat.
Sexton poured himself into “Freedom of The Road” — one of his finest pieces — which tells of a performer looking down a barren stretch that is the rest of his life and knowing, based on a lifetime of bad choices, that his vows to make things better won’t ever happen.
It being Easter eve, Sexton couldn’t help but lift the entire room off the floor with the cutting, sober-eyed “Hallelujah.”
He also brought longtime fans back to the beginning, opening with “In the Journey,” one of his very first recordings (on 8-track, no less) and including a rare performance of another “oldie,” the exquisite “Over My Head.”
For the encore, he reminded everyone that he’s more than a one-man band, digging deeply into Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.”
Martin Sexton may be one of the greatest rock stars who never was. But he’s built — and kept — a deep, strong, consistently loyal following that fills clubs, concert halls and festivals throughout the country.
There’s clearly plenty more to go, but at the quarter-century mark, Sexton is producing is the kind of career enjoyed by only the truest artists — and the most fortunate audiences.