On Saturday, he returned to the stage in a big way: Martin Sexton invited him to duet on Gypsy.
“To start my comeback with live performing with Martin Sexton in a sold-out, awesome venue was more than I could ever ask for…. I felt really, really thankful, and blessed,” said Hayes, 36, who underwent a risky operation to insert an artificial disc into his neck in April.
VIDEO: Martin Sexton invites Eric Hayes onstage:
Sexton, a label-defying singer-songwriter who can growl like a pit bull and yodel like a goatherd, sang two jaw-dropping sets that left the faithful at Montclair’s Outpost In the Burbs pleading for more. The show underscored why Sexton, 52, is John Mayer’s favorite live performer.
Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin. Click / hover on images for captions:
A native of Syracuse, NY, Sexton grew up in an Irish working-class family of 12 children. He honed his craft busking on the streets of Boston, and started his own record label in 2002.
Sexton is particular about who he invites onto his stage. When he introduced Hayes, “a really heroic dude…and a wonderful performer,” Hayes knew he could not hold anything back.
“If you don’t bring your A game, he’ll tell you…he’s brutally honest,” said Hayes, who has performed with Gavin DeGraw and the Allman Brothers Band, among others.
VIDEO: Martin Sexton performs fan favorites at Outpost in the Burbs:
Sexton knows talent when he hears it. During a show about a decade ago in New York, at what is now the PlayStation Theater, Hayes stood in the audience during a call-and-answer portion of Love Keep Us Together and sang so soulfully that Sexton summoned the fan to the microphone to finish the song.
Martin Sexton at Outpost in the Burbs, Sept. 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Weeks earlier, Hayes had won a contest that landed his cover version of Black Sheep on Sexton’s website.
Now, Sexton reaches out to Hayes whenever he tours around New York. What songs they will sing together always is a surprise to Hayes; Sexton decides backstage before showtime.
But Hayes knows the catalog cold. Noticing vocal similarities, friends turned Hayes onto Sexton back when Hayes was playing clubs around Greenwich Village.
Martin Sexton, left, hugs guest singer Eric Hayes at Outpost in the Burbs, Sept. 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
“He’s one of the finest musicians I’ve ever been lucky enough to spend time with,” Hayes said of Sexton. “His voice and his guitar can make you emotional. Everything he says, he means, and everything he does is with integrity and generosity. He’s willing to open doors for you.”
That includes the doors to Montclair’s First Congregational Church, for a post-surgery comeback.
“I wasn’t feeling ready. And then he called me up and said, ‘You’re ready. I know you’re ready. I’ve been watching your Instagram and stuff, and your voice is strong. I think you can do this, man.'”