Martin Sexton and Brothers McCann Jonathan Edwards Winery North Stonington, CT July 17, 2011
Singer/songwriter Martin Sexton drew a big crowd of admirers to the Jonathan Edwards Winery in North Stonington on Sept. 17. Or was it the spectacular setting? Or the wine? Oh, wait, everyone knew all the songs, so it had to be the singer/songwriter who drew hundreds to the rural winery's outdoor Summer concert. Sexton, who started out singing on street corners as a busker, retains that gift of stopping you and pulling you in, just like when he depended on it for his meal money .
With the swagger of a troubadour, a voice that could boom across the valley or dance in the Summer night air and a guitar that could tell stories all on its own, Sexton is a complete package, a one-man band who takes you to a different place with every song. There was times I felt like I was the only one there who didn't know every song. Abandoning his set list early on, fans shouted out song titles and Sexton obliged. By the end, a cacophony of voices shouted between each number, imploring him to play their favorite.
A Syracuse, NY native who moved to Boston and started in the music business playing on the streets of Harvard Square, Sexton confidently strode to the mic before a crowd of several hundred on a beautiful July evening under the tent in middle of Southeastern Connecticut Wine Country and grabbed his audience right away with Freedom Of The Road. The jaunty Diggin' Me followed, with Sexton providing percussion on the guitar body and with his voice, an early hint of how he keeps it interesting. His falsetto, which he uses often, sounded like a trumpet here, loud and brash. He seemed fearless, this performer with the heart of a troubadour.
He was engaging and interactive, drawing on those skills learned as a busker and as a long-time solo artist. Remarking on the gorgeous country setting and the plentiful wine, Sexton said, "This place is, like, right off a commercial for Viagra! Congratulations, fellas, if you're on a date, you're definitely getting laid tonight!"
He went into Happy, "a song about being happy about the simple things in life," then There I Go and an apt choice, Women and Wine. The darkly humorous Failure showed off more of his vocal skills with a scatting section; he uses everything at his disposal vocally and on the guitar to make each song unique and the crowd entertained.
Two story songs followed, Candy and Wasted, the second being a tale of the treehouse he had as a kid where he and his brothers could hide away from Dad and get away with anything. Gypsy Woman had a Hungarian folksong sound in both guitar and vocal, befitting its name, giving it a real sense of time and place.
The carefree syncopation of the popular Livin' The Life from his latest album, Sugarcoating, was a real crowd-pleaser. A request for the "yodeling song" was met with The Way I Am, in which Sexton showed a flair for country yodeling.
These concertgoers show how it's done right: bring friends and food, blanket and dishes. Wine glasses provided.
Night closed in and the sadly sweet Sharie shifted the mood. Playing a strong bass line on his signature Godin model A6 guitar, Sexton could sound like a whole band with just one instrument.
Angeline had the crowd singing along on cue. These weren't just people coming to a winery picnic, they were true fans. It was like being at a John Valby show, only cleaner. The crowd helped sing Hallelujah and everyone was on their feet dancing to Diner, the 2007 song that claimed wide attention from being used on TV's Scrubs, which closed the set.
Sexton returned for an encore of Stick Around and a rousing medley of gospel songs, This Little Light Of Mine, Amen, Hallelujah and Amazing Grace.
Brothers McCann opened with, left to right, Erik White, Pat McCann and Mike McCann
As good as Martin Sexton was, I enjoyed the opening group just as much. Brothers McCann, also from Boston, performed as a trio although they also often perform with bass and drums and sometimes other musicians. Pat McCann on keyboard, Mike McCann and Erik White on guitars have a heavenly three-part vocal harmony. They began with the acapella EMR then went into Simon & Garfunkel's America, in which White sounded uncannily like Paul Simon. They followed with The Wind Inside and the simply gorgeous Absolute that sounded like Crosby, Stills and Nash singing harmony.
She Thinks, from their debut album, with Mike McCann singing lead, sounded like a lost Doobie Brothers song both in his vocal styling and the guitar riff. White sang lead again on Me Free and I just loved Pat's lead vocal on True Heart Speak, wracking my brain trying to think of who it sounded like, whose voice I just love, until I realized it was Adam Levine of Maroon 5. They closed with another original, St. Peter.
While they gratiously paid homage to Sexton, saying how honored they were to be opening for him, it was Brothers McCann I would pay to see again, particularly with their full band. I talked with them after their set and told them that their original sound reminds me of those great artists I mentioned without sounding derivative in any way.
“Our mom and dad raised us with all the music of their generation, Paul Simon, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Van Morrison and all those guys, so we hope it comes out in the music because we are certainly products of our upbringing in that respect,” Mike McCann replied.
They have such a great chemistry. Well, Pat and Mike are brothers, after all. So how did they get Erik involved? “We’ve been old friends for awhile,” Erik said.“I was living in New York for awhile and left that whole scene and went back home to kinda catch my breath.I started hangin’ out with these guys and they said, ‘we have a band and you should come and play.’It just happened and clicked and fit really well.”“Erik was the click,” Pat interjected.“When Erik came, the click occurred.”
“He added a level of professionalism, coming from New York,” added Mike.
Though working as a trio on this night, their drummer, Eran Shaysh, and bassist, Den Bissex, “were here tonight supporting us,” said Mike.“Sometimes we’ll have a saxophone, sometimes a viola, we try to get as many people involved to kind of help flesh out the tunes as best we can.It’s always great to play with a full band and it’s also nice to play ‘em in that kind of stripped-down, minimalist-type approach as they were written.”
The group plays all over New England and I was disappointed to learn I'd missed their full-band gig earlier this Summer at the Winery's Thursday night music series. But I won't miss their return to Jonathan Edwards Winery on August 21 to open for Ben Taylor. Learn more about Brothers McCann on their website.
Jonathan Edwards served as emcee for the evening. He's second from the right, above, with Pat McCann, Mike McCann and Eric White.
I was happy to get to talk to Jonathan Edwards of the winery that bears his name. Edwards served as emcee for the evening and he is a friendly, down-to-earth kind of guy you'd like to sit and have a glass of wine with. And if you think he's some snooty oenologist, think again. He thinks of himself as a farmer first. You're likely to find him out in the field on a tractor most days. The music is an added bonus.
I mentioned that he seemed to have found a winning combination: the beautiful setting, great music and good wine.
“I think so," Edwards replied, "and thank you.We’ve been working on it for almost ten years and slowly building the repertoire of musicians we bring in.We’re a winery first, a farm, number one.But right along with that is good food and good music.Each year we’re adding one big, new act.We’ve had Jonathan Edwards for five years now (who returns on July 24); Ben Taylor (son of James Taylor and Carly Simon) is coming in for a second year now, and Martin Sexton is the topper.So we’re thrilled.”
“Ben Taylor’s concert will be a benefit concert for Chikumbuso," Edwards told me.Half of all ticket sales on August 21st will go to support Chikumbuso, an organization with founders rooted in North Stonington, that benefits AIDS widows in Africa and has had success in building microenterprise in Zambia.
Last year, Edwards said, "we dragged him off of Martha’s Vineyard to do the show and he’s playing again this year.Talk about a nice guy!" he raved. "The Brothers McCann, too.The people up here, they give, give, give.That’s what we foster here, we try to attract it with our own positive vibe and the musicians, that’s just something that’s an added benefit to the winery.It’s wonderful.”