Stephen Kellogg: 31 October 2011 - Rochester, NY

[17 November 2011]

By Jared Bennett

2011 marks the fourth Halloween in a row that the Club at Water Street hosts Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers, so I should know better by now, but three songs into the night I’m still not exactly sure what’s going on. There were signs, even dating back to last Halloween, when Stephen and the boys dressed as Pearl Jam and played the album Ten in its entirety, or the scarved, headbanded outfits most of the band wear, sporting different shades of purple. Still, as the Sixers bearded drummer, affectionately known as “Boots”, sings “I met her in a hotel lobby / Masturbating with a magazine” while dressed as a giant purple banana, I am thoroughly confused. Wildly entertained, but confused nonetheless.

Members of another generation will recognize the lyrics to “Darling Nikki” and the giant purple banana as part of Prince’s 1984 masterpiece Purple Rain, but I don’t catch on until the first bars of “When the Doves Cry”. The band plays the album front to back complete with hilarious dancing and irreverent impressions of The Purple One on songs like “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Purple Rain”. Despite the ridiculousness, they actually sound great, especially guitarist Sam Getz, who gets to show off a bit on Prince’s gaudy solos where The Sixers catalog is usually a bit more reserved.

Between “Princess and the Revolutionaries”, opening act Jon McLauglin and a costume contest, a lot goes down at Water Street before the main event. When they finally take the stage, Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers kick things off right with “4th of July”, a great song that epitomizes Kellogg’s style with lyrics that are pointedly specific and ubiquitous at the same time.

Their next tune, “Roots and Wings”, comes from Gift Horse, their newest album which the Boys Only (Plus Girls) Tour currently supports. The group’s previous release, 2009’s The Bear still feels new to me, emphasized by tonight’s version of “Mabaline”. Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers usually fall into the alt-country genre, de-emphasis on country, but this song shows that the Sixers can create a pretty big rock and roll sound.

At this time, Stephen turns on his trademark charm, telling the crowd a story about the longest standing Sixer Kit “Goose” Karlson. Tonight seems to be about traditions as much as anything else, so Kellogg reminisces about the first performance of the Goose dance, a beloved staple of Sixers shows where Goose leaves his keyboard to enthusiastically and borderline spastically dance to whatever tune the band happens to be playing. The whole thing is pretty childish and hilarious, but tonight I’m close enough to the stage to see the genuine smile Goose wears during the dance. Apparent at every Stephen Kellogg concert, he and his band mates not only love playing music, but they love playing it together. They don’t take themselves too seriously and no matter how heavy the songs get, I’ve never seen a band have more fun onstage than these four. Later on, when playing “My Favorite Place”, Kellogg puts his arms around his bandmates while they share the center microphone and I can’t help but think the song is really about sharing the stage.

Stephen announces the next song will be a throwback jam and I immediately recognize the opening chords to “Thirteen”, a song off Kellogg’s first album with the Sixers way back in 2004. I have my own memories attached to this song involving long bus rides and school field trips; exactly the scenery the lyrics describe. That’s what Kellogg’s music does best. He’s unabashedly heartfelt and straightforward, and the result is something uncomplicated yet remarkably effective.

At this point, the band leaves; “they quit,” Kellogg says.Alone on stage, Stephen plays “1993”, another song off Gift Horse. I have a hard time relating to a lot of the material on Gift Horse. Kellogg writes about his life, and right now his biggest muses are undoubtedly his daughters and life as a family man. That’s all well and good, but songs like “1993” and the earlier “Roots and Wings” lose something in the generation gap. That’s not to say they’re bad songs. Gift Horse might be the Sixers most musically solid album yet, and there are plenty of misty eyes throughout the audience, just not mine.

In a move he says he learned from Taylor Swift, Stephen and the boys join the crowd to play an unplugged, sing-along version of “Shady Esperanto and the Young Hearts Club” before ending the main set with the whiskey swilling “Start the Day Early”.

For an encore, The Sixers show off the new single “Gravity” as the end of another Halloween spent with Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers. My prediction for All Hallows Eve 2012: Same city, same band but bigger venue.

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