Stephen Kellogg and his erstwhile combo The Sixers have already chalked up an impressive tilt at entry into the rock ‘n’ roll hall of fame. Over nine years they’ve played the best part of 1300 shows mostly crisscrossing America, but also the international stage, especially playing to the US armed forces overseas.
With seven albums released over this period, the band has also scored some notable critical success, but it’s the work ethic that has put them into the hearts of legions of Americans. When they decided to call a hiatus, the inevitable farewell tour through October and November last year climaxed with a three hour show at Webster’s Hall in New York. That fits right in with the epic performance model set out by the likes of the Grateful Dead and Springsteen, so it’s no surprise to see both name checked in his biography, albeit in the latter’s case as the result of a somewhat disparaging comparison.
Any such critique, however, seems at very least unfair. There is only one Bruce Springsteen and there is only one Stephen Kellogg. If they share anything, it’s perhaps a sense of honesty and integrity in their writing, although both are obviously keen to connect with their audience with endurance level stage time too.
Stephen doesn’t write in the same way as Bruce, but he clearly cares about what he has to say and thinks deeply about lyrical structure. There’s a overriding sense that he wears his heart on his sleeve, but as much as the album Blunderstone Rookery, deals with emotional turbulence and the need for redemption, he also has a playful side too and pushes into some homespun philosophising. You may regard such musings as naïve, but there’s a wry, almost impudent streak in the mix that is actually rather more endearing. You suspect that both also share an equal regard for the blue-collar everyman, hallucinogenic ramblings are far less likely than booze fuelled moribund.
Stephen hails from Northampton MA, but has drifted a 100 miles or so southward and now calls southern Connecticut home. He’s married with four daughters and on the inner of the CD, there’s a picture of him revealing a tattoo on his upper arm that bears their names. They make it onto the album too, into Men & Women, Stephen’s take on the battle of the sexes, which possesses genuine compassion, empathy and a slice of both self deprecating humility and good humour that’s hard to fault.
Perhaps unsurprisingly in a year that has brought the tragedy of both his grandmother’s and mother in law’s deaths, there is a also a streak of mortality that runs through tracks like Crosses, I Don’t Want to Die On The Road and most movingly Ingrid’s Song. That last deals with the lingering effect of the death of a parent, whatever your beliefs. The afterlife is lived by others who connect with the lessons handed down and the memories that are given much sharper focus by the loss of passing and the void it leaves with those who survive.
I Don’t Want To Die On The Road has a bit of rock ‘n’ roll classicism and mythologizing about it. There is both an acknowledgement that someday your number is up, but also at the songs core is a weariness with the touring lifestyle and the pain of separation from loved ones. Despite what old Neil would have us believe, perhaps the jury is still out on the burn/rust debate. There’s a roll call of Stephen’s heroes that you can regrettably extend in many different ways of those who seem to have left this life too young. As he astutely pinpoints, “You get what you give and I gave this a lot.”
One who is name checked who is still with us, at least the last time I looked is Jackson Brown. Perhaps he may symbolise the apotheosis of the semi-recumbent, FM sounds of LA to some, but at the very least his first three solo albums are forever etched into my soul. At his best Stephen Kellogg offers similar glimpse into the human condition to those derived from that particular body of work. He also has an ear for the tunes to make those glimpses count and you may well immediately rise to Lost And Found or the (very) Tom Petty-ish jangle and hooks of Forgive You Forgive Me.
Asked about the hiatus of the Sixers and the impact of going solo, Stephen has highlighted the decision making process. The song writing imperative remains largely unchanged, but the business of recording is a different matter. Without the band behind him playing their prescribed instruments, the search for new sonic textures has clearly been liberating, but perhaps the familiarity of his long term collaborator Kit Karlson has also added to the willingness to take risks. A band will tend to impose its identity on every song, but here a brassy honk drives through The Brain Is A Beautiful Thing and almost pushes Good Ol’Days into Ian Hunter/Mott territory, enhanced by the girlie backing vocal chorus line.
There is one truly amazing, outstanding track and we’ll get to that in a minute, but there are hints from the get go. Without crediting a cast of dozens, Lost And Found has a choir of layered voices that seems almost to beam in from a different song. It’s not melodically at odds, but is still the surprise that drops the first clues of magic to come. It adds an ethereal quality to a fine example of the singer songwriter craft, built around the Stephen’s dancing acoustic guitar line.
Thanksgiving, however, is the game changer, a 10 minute plus epic of a song that starts and ends with the University Of Massachusetts Choral and in between packs a spirited narrative that rises in intensity to a dramatic climax, as the rocky road of a life is mapped out. If you want to make Bruce Springsteen comparisons, then start here, but also take note of Good Red Wine. Stephen knows how to tell a story, how the drama of detail unfolds and how to reach the emotional kernels that connect us all. Thanksgiving is impassioned and as it rises to impossible idealism, Stephen simply tells us, “But lucky for us, I’m not a guy that gives up.”
It’s been said before, but making the personal universal and showing us the connections that we all share are the gifts of the best songwriters. It’s great to have Stephen on the team and his determination can be a lesson for us all. If we give up on our dreams then what does it make us? There are plenty, plenty of other things to like about Blunderstone Rookery, but Thanksgiving is the anthem to take to heart. Whether you wear it on your sleeve as Stephen does is up to you.
Review by: Simon Holland
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Blunderstone Rookery is released 26th August via Bread and Butter Music