Etown gigs are famous for their left-leaning audiences, but politics mostly took a backseat during Martin Sexton’s Valentine’s Day taping at the Boulder Theater. Sexton’s rather tousled appearance suggested he could have very well been plucked from nearby Pearl Street’s stable of street performers, yet underneath the shabby facade was an incredible voice and effortless guitar playing.
He joked about his Irish Catholic upbringing with eTown host Nick Forester where, among his 11 siblings, a sense of rhythm was not a predominant theme. Sexton’s straightforward upbringing somehow converged in a mixture of sounds and influences, coaxing a medley of gospel, soul, Americana and bluegrass out of his Syracuse stomping grounds.
On tour for his new record, “Sugarcoating,” Sexton came to the stage, guitar slung low around his waist and sang (with a highly exaggerated falsetto), “Helloooo eTown, how youuuu dooooing?” Falsetto primed from that comical introduction, Sexton opened his set with “Found,” a track speaking to finding happiness apart from material goods and with a bit of urban shenanigans — he sang “I’d climb the Statue of Liberty, just to get a better view.” Sexton has a very Jack Black-ish way about him; think “School of Rock” Jack Black. You know, the high-pitched vocal acrobatics, hat-hair and that pudgy, short-man sway.
After letting out a big “Ahhhhh,” as if his nerves had subsided, Sexton played the next song solo with a single spotlight overhead. Shortly after, the 10-odd takes it took for Helen Forester to read the e-town sponsorship announcements turned the mood light as she was interrupted by the clank of a spilled beer bottle in the crowd and her own giggles as she read the ad copy for “Galaxy Nutritional Foods,” maker of fake cheese.
Forester ribbed Sexton, calling him “insidious and confrontational,” and the discourse took a turn towards 9/11; Sexton spoke of not being a “nutjob who spends all day on the internet,” yet cried foul play on the government for its perceived role in the attacks. Forester closed out the conversation hailing Sexton as a torchbearer for the troubadour movement and a “real provocateur.”
Making her fourth eTown appearance, Nellie McKay had the crowd enraptured as she cooed tongue-in-cheek lyrics over a variety of musical styles. Like the jazzy-jangly sounds of “Life”-era Cardigans, the highlight of McKay’s set was a track called “Beneath the Underdog.” Her Q & A with Forester was full of off-kilter charm, most notably her story about meeting Larry David at Feinstein’s, the New York City supper club.
Sexton, the e-tones, and McKay collaborated on show-closer “What’s Going On?” — maybe not the most apropos number for Valentine’s Day (“Let’s Get It On” wasn’t considered?) — but proved a perfect selection to underscore the social and political undertones that pepper both artists’ repertoire.
Craig Randall is a Boulder-based writer and PR pro with an identity crisis. He credits both “Let Me Love You Down” and “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” as life-changing tracks. Check out his website.