His guitar resting against his back, Martin Sexton strides onto the stage like a gunslinger entering a dusty saloon. Music is the weapon he uses to battle against ignorance and apathy. Martin is a barrel of a man with a warm, open pie-shaped face that peers out from underneath a riot of black hair. He’s only five-feet and some change, but he carries a profound, charged presence with him that makes him seem much larger. You can feel the energy rearrange itself as Martin walks to the apron of the stage in front of the solitary mic.
On Tuesday the world slid sideways. It’s Thursday, but it still feels like America should have had a V8.
I’ve been looking forward to this show ever since I bought the tickets six months ago. I am a moony, long-time fan of Martin and his raucus-blues-rock-rootsy-folksy-hot-damn music that makes you feel like you’re riding a souped-up carnival Tilt-a-Whirl, minus a few bolts and safety straps.
Martin smiles, tuning his guitar while the crowd applauds his entrance. I am suddenly nervous for him, I’m nervous for all of us. I want him to say the right things (whatever the hell those are. He’s the artist, he can figure it out) that will speak to the shock and anxiety and fear ricocheting around the country like a pinball. The theatre sits in a small, historic northern New Hampshire town. I take stock of the room and note the majority of white faces that look like mine. But I’m no longer naïve enough to think we all share the same feelings or beliefs about, well, anything really. The results of our latest and most demoralizing political contest have disabused me of that notion forever.
I know I’m putting a lot of pressure on Martin, and I know he senses that on some level. He’s been making music for upwards of three decades. For a lot of musicians as well as writers, painters, playwrights, and other creative types, that mantle comes with the responsibility to help the rest of us find our truths, make sense of the world when it makes absolutely no sense, get us to think, to see, and to come together in the face of the things determined to divide us.
“Thanks everybody,” he says, continuing to tune, strumming his guitar, humming a little into the mic. “Thanks for coming out tonight to this beautiful theatre. I feel lucky to be here with you. I’ve been on a bit of a tour break for about the last month or so. This is my first show in this…” There’s a brief pause as he searches for the right word. “….interesting new world we find ourselves in.” Nervous laughter scatters throughout the audience. There is some soft applauding. We can all feel that we’re in his hands now and grateful for the catch.
What follows is a 2-hour show of Martin’s raw musical power. It is the very best parts of a revivalist meeting wrapped in a rock-n-roll concert. He exhorts us, who he calls his “brothers and sisters,” in a call and response; he gets us to sing along, to clap and stomp, and give him a mighty “allelu” and “amen!” I suspect even the most rigid atheist is unable to resist Martin’s joyful prosleytizing. It’s not a religious agenda he’s pushing, it’s one of peace, unity, and love. It’s one that asks us to put down our shields for a couple of hours and see one another.
I spend the show smiling and crying and singing and laughing and feeling like this is exactly the kind of night I needed to soothe my exposed nerves.
Five days later I’m at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston waiting for Ani DiFranco to take the stage. The energy in the room has teeth. The crowd is a wildly diverse tribe–young, old, black, white, brown, and all shades in between; gay, straight, trans, male, female, able-bodied, disabled, the only thing we’re missing are four-legged friends and then I have to eat that thought when I see a man sitting across the aisle with a service dog.
Ani has been an artist and activist for more than twenty years, long before there was a market for it. She sings about and openly campaigns for women’s rights, human rights, environmental rights and, most recently, the right to participate in our democratic process. “I’m still technically on the ‘Vote, Damnit’ tour,” she says ruefully to the screams that greet her as she takes the stage with her small band. Fists break the air. This is a revivalist meeting of a whole other kind.
Like Martin, Ani is, in frame, a small, slight woman. And like Martin, what she lacks in height she makes up for in the engine of energy and power that fuels her guitar playing. The muscles in her arms twitch and jump as she pounds on chord after chord; she is a freight train of music and emotion more than willing to jump the track and take us all over the cliff with her. I’m in.
This is my first time seeing her in concert. I know. I feel like someone should confiscate my feminist card. I accidentally picked a pretty good “first time” Ani experience, that’s for damn sure. The concert is all drive and punishing honesty of what Martin referred to as the “interesting” new world we find ourselves in. Five days later we’re no less bruised. We’re still triaging our emotions, but there’s something more than forlornly gazing in the rear view mirror at the exit to the road definitely not taken. We are seething with anger (yes), but also with restlessness. It’s a hunger for hope served with an equal helping of action.
Ani delivers. She talks about mobilizing and organizing and staying vigilant. More hands in the air—fists, peace signs, open palms. War whoops roll across the room like a flash flood through an arid canyon. She also talks and sings about hope and compassion and the need to connect and understand and listen to each other that is more vital than ever before.
She is one artist doing what comes natural to her, using her literal and figurative stage in the only way she knows how just like Martin. As the days roll on we’ll hear from more artists (I hope!) and what they have to say will be secondary to what they represent: a way forward in this unsettling landscape. They will remind us that we are all testing our voices, deciding what roles we will play in this historical turn. And we do all have parts to play, make no mistake about that.
I spend the show smiling and crying and singing and laughing and feeling like this is exactly the kind of night I needed.