Playbill

Martin Sexton doesn't look like the type of guy who'd take you to church. Sure, he's got a baby face, but those soft features are framed by long and unruly hair, and he tends to prefer what could charitably be called thrift-store fashions. You sense that underneath the oddly cuddly exterior lies a soul that understands life's carnal pleasures. Yet to experience Sexton's music, whether live or on record, is to embark on a spiritual quest in which you achieve a state of grace.

Certain African religions center on the concept of ase, a communal raising of collective spirit to achieve transcendence. Interested parties can experience an American variation on ase at a Sexton show, where the pure joy, sweat and animal magnetism that the songwriter exudes elevate the crowd to another level, on which strangers become friends as they share harmonies with the shaggy preacher man. Sexton is an evangelist for the Church of Life, releasing his joy and sadness on stage, spreading the gospel of experience to those willing to listen.

The last time this Boston troubadour came through town -- supporting 1998's The American, a collection of folksy pop-rock songs inspired by Sexton's road-dog touring ethic -- he filled up the now-defunct Instant Karma with his devoted, glory-bound fans. Sexton performed with just his guitar and a percussionist, and wowed the crowd with his passionate, nimble scatting and almost erotic bliss.

This time around, Sexton has a new album, Wonder Bar, which is full of spirit and love (and heavily influenced by '70s rock, like Frampton Comes Alive) but comes from a more rooted perspective. Where The American was inspired by globe-trotting, Wonder Bar springs from a quiet place: from sitting still and discovering the beauty that's around you. "It's a collection of songs that reflect who I am," Sexton has said. To learn who that is, all you have to do is show up and listen.

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Melanie Haupt