My feature originally appeared in the North County Times newspaper and can be viewed here:
Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers perform on Wednesday at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach and Thursday at the Troubadour in West Hollywood.
Photo courtesy of Vanguard Records. To purchase the new live album and see the cool video to "Shady Esperanto and the Young Hearts," go to www.stephenkellogg.com
Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers have a reputation for freewheeling shows where everyone onstage usually swaps instruments - and plays them well - at some point.
“The perfect storm of our personalities has always made for a loose and improvisational, but heartfelt mix,” explained singer/guitarist Kellogg, en route to a concert in Cape Cod. “It was one thing we all really agreed on, early on. We had slightly different ideas about where it would go, but over time, the sound evolved into an Americana/rock ‘n’ roll thing.”
A prime example is the new “Live from the Heart” album recorded last April in New York City during the Massachusetts quartet’s 1000th show. Many fans flew in from across the country.
For Kellogg, the special occasion represented “all the hours we spent together and the depth of friendship that I feel for these guys – it was a big deal…that night we all felt the love.”
Last year, more listeners than ever became acquainted with the group (commonly known as SK6ERS) thanks to jubilant, life affirming single “Shady Esperanto and the Young Hearts,” which reached the top 20 on Billboard’s Adult Rock chart.
Kellogg first met bassist/keyboardist Kit Karlson when both were UMass Amherst students, but didn’t form the band until 2003 with drummer/fellow alum Brian Factor. The singer already put out a few solo albums independently. SK6ERS – rounded out by recent recruit Sam “Steamer” Getz on lead guitar - released an eponymous second disc through Universal Records in ’05; the critically acclaimed “Glassjaw Boxer” emerged two years later on O.A.R.’s Everfine label.
Latest Vanguard Records album “The Bear” is the strongest SK6ERS effort to date. Coming across like a reflective mix of Wilco, Counting Crows and The Band, Kellogg said it was the first time their live energy was truly harnessed in the studio.
“We’ve always done most of our recordings playing live. The difference on ‘The Bear’ is we kept all the performances [and didn’t tinker with things]…sometimes it sounds like we’re rushing or singing off key. But it sounds like us, which was really satisfying.”
Crafted in NYC apartment and rural Maine farmhouse studios, “The Bear” includes notable guest appearances by Josh Ritter, Juno Award-winning Canadian vocalist Serena Ryder and former Whiskeytown multi-instrumentalist Mike Daly.
The old school recording style and tight budget led to economizing choices. “If you wanted to remix, there was no computer to call it up.”
Lyrically, the semi-autobiographical songs progress chronologically from adolescent to middle age concerns. “It’s about being between 20 years old - when you’re still a kid - and 40 – when you’re officially an adult - and reconciling that transition. Going from calling your parents for advice to being somebody’s parent, that’s a big job,” explained Kellogg, 33, a married father of two.
“It starts with the story of a hopeful couple and by the time you get to the last track, you’re taking stock of what’s happened.”
A distinct early 1970s singer-songwriter aesthetic envelops “Dying Wish of a Teenager,” sung from the perspective of a kid who commits suicide. Among several first time co-writes between Kellogg, his bandmates and Daly that took the singer out of his usual comfort zone, it has a “weird riff and groove. Those were choices I’d never make left to my own devices. What was exciting about writing with the guys was pushing myself and growing.”
Snappy, piano-led tune “All Part of the Show” revisits classic music hall territory. High flying countrified harmonies elevate the aging parent tune “My Old Man.” Then there’s “Lonely in Columbus,” a stark, atmospheric Springsteen-esque song about being stranded in a parking lot.
Folky “Mabeline” starts as a Peter Case-styled drug cautionary tale before morphing into an extended conclusion. “We fell off our stools at the end of that...we figured if you’re on track 12 of our [nearly] hour-long record, you’re invested enough that you can take a four-minute jam.”
Quietly dramatic closer “Born in the Spring” delves into rebirth and finds Kellogg singing about traveling across the country to spread the word about SK6ERS “from south San Diego to Portland, Maine.”
“You know the little joint Lestat’s? They gave us our first gig down there,” he said of this region. "We played for about 12 people. Not that we’re so huge now, but those tours were super modest in the beginning. Right out of the box, we said ‘we’re taking it everywhere.’
In 2009, the group embarked on some really long haul jaunts during a tour of military bases in the Middle East, Europe (including Germany with Sugarland), the American Embassy in Israel and NATO bases in England and the Netherlands.
“It was a great chance for us to let the troops know how much they’re appreciated. Politics aside, those young people in many cases are over there working really hard doing what they believe is the right thing. That adds so much value to what we do – to go over and entertain them…you feel like an ambassador to your country for a minute.”