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Art and Soul

Martin Sexton is the central character in one of those bootstrapping success stories Americans love. The performer, who began his career by busking on Boston street corners, has built a supportive fan base of thousands across the nation while remaining independent of the machine that perpetuates mediocre talents better suited for Barbie's Dream House than the stage. The fact that Sexton has pursued his dream on his own terms ensures that America will never see him on the cover of Rolling Stone. Not that he minds too much: Sexton has learned he can get along just fine without any help from Big Music Media.

A native of Syracuse, New York, and the product of a "meat-and-potatoes Catholic" environment, the self-taught Sexton started honing his craft on Beantown streets in 1989, eventually graduating to cafes and coffee shops, where enthusiastic word of his brand of soul-infused folk and raw, balls-out storytelling began to spread. His self-produced demo, In the Journey, originally available only on cassette, garnered a host of Boston Music Awards when it was released in 1992 and has since sold more than 23,000 copies.

Four years after his homemade debut, Sexton released his first studio album, Black Sheep, on his own imprint, Eastern Front Records. (Like Journey, the album was reissued in 2000.) On it, he sings about leaving everything behind to follow his ambitions and the fears he felt upon learning that he was to be a teenage father. He also shares the euphoria and desperation of being a latter-day Dharma bum who seeks and spreads enlightenment as he traverses the country. Black Sheep is a mostly acoustic affair, spiced up with the occasional accordion, snare brushes and silver bracelets. It remains a favorite among "Sexheads," who have snapped up more than 30,000 copies from the merchandise table at Sexton shows.

Relentless touring inspired what some might consider Sexton's "breakthrough" record, The American, which marked a move to major label Atlantic. The American evokes that deep-down ache, the one that inspires itchy feet and the urge to ditch it all, throw your shit in the car and just go. Commune with the saguaros, get caught in a windstorm -- whatever. It's a musical manifestation of the transcendental ideal to go out and live deliberately, to connect with the land and its people. "The American had an accumulation of songs that were really inspired by being on the road and meeting different characters from the road all over," says Sexton.

At the time of its release in 1999, The American signaled a shift in direction. The record displays a glossier version of Sexton's earlier style; in fact, some diehards claim that it's overproduced. Gone are the pared-down acoustic-folk strummings that were previously his signature; in their place is a soul-country-rock-gospel fusion. That combination is what Sexton is now most identified by, and it's what separates him from other Boston-bred, folky singer-songwriters. His reputation for putting on sweltering live shows has helped smash the mold as well.

Equal parts slyly swaggering sex god and righteous preacher, Sexton guides his fans in group consciousness-raising, leading them in sing-alongs or silencing them with his own hushed vocals and guitar. The Yoruba of Nigeria call this ase -- the communal raising of collective spirit to achieve optimum spiritual fulfillment -- and Sexton is an expert practitioner. Joy is his secret weapon.

"I think that's why people come back. I think that's why they buy my new records, and that's why they bring their friends and family to the next show. Because they see something that they have inside themselves," Sexton says. "There is a great joy that I have when I sing; there is also a great sadness that I have. And it runs the whole gamut of emotions when I'm singing. And because I have this ability to sing out my sorrows or my pains or my adulations, it rolls into this big snowball of joy. I think people see that like they see their hand in front of their face. It's just so tangible, and so real, too. Everyone knows joy and sorrow, so when they see another human being expressing that in front of them, I think it's also a reminder that 'I can do that, too. I have that.'"

This connection with his audience has placed him in a prime position to promote Live Wide Open, which came out in early April. Sexton's first effort since leaving Atlantic last year, the album is also the first offering from his nascent Kitchen Table Records. Recorded during live shows in Boulder, Chicago and San Francisco, among other places, the two-disc set is a document of the 80,000 miles Sexton logged while promoting 2001's Wonder Bar, a meaty, sweaty rock-and-roll outing inspired by '70s FM artists like Peter Frampton and Stevie Wonder. Live Wide Open features Sexton and his longtime tour sidekick, drummer Joe Bonadio. Despite the fact that there are just two performers on stage during the recordings, it sometimes feels as though the entire room is filled with music. Sexton plucks out bass lines on his E, A and D strings while singing the treble parts into a souped-up microphone. He punches up several songs with his nimble scatting, often using his voice as a substitute for a trumpet or a squeezebox.

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Melanie Haupt