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Music review: Old street busker Martin Sexton displays craft at NorShor

Martin Sexton peformed Saturday at the NorShor Theatre. Photo from martinsexton.com

A good street busker can turn a simple song and beat-up acoustic guitar into something strong enough to stop a busy working world for a short listen.

Singer/songwriter Martin Sexton has taken this hardscrabble art form to its highest level in a workmanlike 25-year music career.

Sexton, who started performing on Boston, Mass., sidewalks, showcased his strong voice, memorable songs and a talent for connecting with a crowd during a mostly solo 18-song, 105-minute performance at the NorShor Theatre in Duluth Saturday night.

"Nice digs you got here," he told the audience. "You know the last time I was in this room it wasn't so nice. It was cold and a little rough. It was cool, you know, but it wasn't this nice. What happened?"

The comment got a big laugh from 500 mostly middle-aged audience members who have experienced the ups and downs of the historic building.

Dressed in a brown fedora, jeans and boots, Sexton used his loyal followers and bag of street busking tricks to give each song a unique spin. So while it was just Sexton and his guitar on stage, he clearly wasn't alone.

For example, the crowd provided a "doodle-ew" backdrop while Sexton zipped through the dating song "Diggin' Me." The singer used his voice to create both drum sounds and a muted trumpet solo.

Sexton used the crowd again for a haunting "ewww-ewww" backdrop that carried his song "Hallelujah" to Bob Dylan and "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" heights. Snippets of U2, Cheap Trick and the Beatle classic "Let It Be" emphasized the song's spirituality.

"I get nervous when I sing for Duluth," said Sexton. "I have quite a history with this town and I don't want to mess it up. I've gone from the Amazing Grace bakery to now this beautiful church for music."

Sexton has a remarkable voice that sits somewhere between John Mayer and Zac Brown. But what makes him special is an ability to shift gears from a low growl to a high register. At times he even stepped away from the microphone, filling the room with a natural, open-air sound.

He performed "Diner," as a bouncy ode to classic greasy-spoon restaurants and a dedicated a song called "Virginia" to his mother. "Using love and drugs and diesel fumes as I roll out of control to Virginia," he sang.

The song "The Way I Am" from his 1998 major-label debut "The American," received the night's biggest response. Sexton delivered the song with an old man voice interlude and a yodel he said was learned from his busking days.

Show opener Chris Trapper took the stage to harmonize on one song and Sexton whistled on another. A hollow-body electric guitar was introduced for "Gypsy Woman," which included some Led Zeppelin riffing.

The setlist was heavy on material from the 1996 breakthrough album "Black Sheep" but a couple of those songs like "Candy" lacked spark. Some new material might have added even more energy and discovery to the night.

Still the whispering set closer — the title track to "Black Sheep" — had the audience singing along like it was at church.

Sexton, playing his grandfather's banjo, and Trapper on guitar moved into the audience and performed in the aisle for an encore. The pair played a medley of classic country gospel songs illuminated only by cellphone light including the rousing "Amazing Grace."