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American Dream

Just a man and his guitar, Martin Sexton covers a lot of ground live

Last time Martin Sexton played Houston, people were willing to sell their souls to, well, not necessarily the devil, but at least the manager of Instant Karma, the venue at which Sexton was scheduled to perform.

Says Tinna Powell, Instant Karma manager/booker: "People drove from miles. We had a Louisiana couple that came here at around 2 [p.m.]. They said, '$75.' I said noŠ.Then there was a group of people from Chicago, two couples, offering me $200 to sneak in the back. And I'm thinking, 'I bet you could wait here until after the show, give [Sexton] the money, and he'd play for you right here in the parking lot.' I was shocked. I had never heard of him."

And that's the intensity of Sexton's appeal, though it's funny so many couples (including the bunches inside) would throng to see a show by an artist who makes outsider-ness and loneliness look so damn cool.

Sexton is coming back to town this weekend and will perform with only a percussionist. He could be with a full symphony or a punk band. Doesn't matter. His music is so well written, so solid, soŠ musical, nothing can corrupt its essence. His recent national debut, The American (Atlantic), which is fully realized by a studio band, is not only one of the best albums of the past year or so, it's one of the greatest collections of pop songs ever.

A tune like "Way I Am" is just one explanation why Sexton's deserving of superlatives. Part ballad, part dream, part children's song (believe it), "Way I Am" is one of those tunes that, like an exceptional movie, makes you laugh, makes you cry, makes you want to live life. It's also an example of how Sexton, like a good novelist, notices things around him and channels them through his songwriting pen. Names and places are always changed. Essences aren't.

"I'm an observant guy," says Sexton from a hotel in Milwaukee. "I don't put actual people in my songsŠ.I don't say, 'I just met this waitress named Ada in Newport, Kentucky, who's just buried two children and her husband and still wears her wedding ring.' It's not like that. I let [people I meet] stew inside and come out in some other fashion."

"Way I Am," which is built primarily on Sexton's slowly picked acoustic guitar and wide-ranching voice, involves a trio of characters on the edge of collapse (like Ada). In one part of the song, Sexton sings about buying some man a drink on the night the man's about to be kicked out of town. The man says (through Sexton's vocal impersonation): "You know, I don't like the way I am. / You know, I don't like the way I am. / And I'm gonna change the way I am. / Yes, I am. / I'm gonna change the way I am."

So sad, so futile, so morose, is his gruff voice that the listener is compelled to empathize with the character, even cry for him. And when, during the last verse of the song, Sexton sings, "And [the man] played the sweetest song for me / On his squeezebox by the sea," then silences his guitar and uses his falsetto to softly mimic the "ooh-ooh, ooh-ooh, ooh" of the man's instrument, one can't help but -- for once -- believe in pop music and what it's capable of, even in an age of distractions like Ricky Martin and 98š and charlatans like Lauryn Hill and Lucinda Williams.

Sexton was always into music. The first real record he ever listened to "had this big green apple on it." It was the Beatles' Abbey Road (on Apple Records), and, curiously enough, Sexton first encountered the album while rummaging through a brother's record collection. Young Martin was looking for vinyl discs to toss around as surrogate Frisbees at the local athletic field. The Beatles one, though, he listened to. And fell in love with. "I went out and bought every Beatles record after that," says Sexton, who was in sixth grade at the time (the late 1970s). "And Fleetwood Mac, Frampton Comes Alive, all that stuff."

But just listening to the music was for second-stringers. Sexton wanted to make his own. One of 12 kids, Sexton would sit up in bed at night and read the Sears catalog musical instrument section by flashlight. "I used to think," says Sexton, " 'If I only had a bandŠ' " He got his first guitar, a sunburst electric Les Paul knockoff, when he was 13. Soon after, he was performing in front of audiences.

After graduating from high school in 1985, Sexton started singing in cover bands and busking in Boston subways and across the river in Cambridge on Harvard University's campus. All the while, Sexton worked at Cafe de Paris on Arlington, slinging java and doing kitchen chores. An incident there was the kick in the ass Sexton needed to go full-heartedly into music.

"After I got fired," says Sexton. "I had always seen people [busking], and I had been meaning to do that for some time. But I didn't own an acoustic."

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