Northeast Underground

Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers conjure "Gift Horse" of a different color

Gift Hprse (album cover)Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers

Gift Horse

(Vanguard)

Some of the greatest moments in music history have been the product of tragedy.

Australian rockers AC/DC recorded their seminal album Back in Black after the death of original lead singer Bon Scott in 1980. “Tears in Heaven” the centerpiece of Eric Clapton’s 1992 MTV Unplugged set was written after the accidental death of the guitarist’s 4-year-old son Conor in 1991. And now in 2011, Western Massachusetts’ own Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers have produced their own gem from what could have been the most unfortunate set of circumstances in the band’s history.

You see, just the fact that most of the group is alive today is nothing short of a miracle. So let’s start at the beginning…

Back in January, on the night before the SK6ERS were to head into the studio to begin work on their latest record Gift Horse, most of the band including producer Mark Weinberg were involved in a serious car accident.

According to Kellogg, “The whole band and the producer got hit by a snowplow. The guy was drunk, and he just crossed over the lines and smashed right into them.”

Fortunately, apart from a few hurt ribs along with some bumps and bruises, everyone was able to walk away from the scene largely unhurt. However an emergency trip to the hospital was required a few days later, when drummer Brian “Boots” Factor heard a strange ‘pop’ sound come from his ribcage (he eventually would heal from his injuries).

Though the band’s namesake member wasn’t with the rest of the guys during the wreck, the experience still affected him. And his emotions at the time of the potentially-tragic event would go on to paint large brushstrokes over the material recorded for Gift Horse.

“The fact that no one was seriously injured though was like we said, ‘The fates have shined upon us. We better make a worthy record,’” he said.

And perhaps prophetically, the group did so in spades.

Opening with the infectious strummer “Gravity,” Gift Horse doesn’t so much draw you in as it immediately thrusts you into the studio with the band. Combining hand-claps, a sing-along chorus, and twinkling piano – the song is a pure winner.

“I love it right here with my feet on the ground,” Kellogg sings. And hearing the words one can quickly see why the group’s humble attitude and everyman demeanor has earned them a legion of loyal fans.

Watch Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers perform “Gravity” from their latest album Gift Horse here:

Still, opening an album with your best and brightest track can be a risky strategy. Inevitably whatever tune that follows has to be a letdown of sorts. Yet, instead of losing momentum Kellogg and company circle their wagons with the nostalgic eye-on-the-future number “Who We Are, Who We’ll Become.”

Dripping with detailed lyrics that feature mentions of grandfatherly advice, listening to Pearl Jam with a young love, and spending summers at a local pond – the tune highlights the often intimate nature of some of the SK6ERS best work.

Elsewhere, the semi-biographical song “1993” showcases the light-hearted touch the band often brings to its live shows. Bouncy bass lines and humorous cat-calls from the rest of the group frequently accent Kellogg’s words, which according to an introduction from the singer’s solo tour sometimes veer too close to truth for his record label’s liking.

He said, “Our record label is great and I love them. But they said, ‘Stephen you know we really feel like we can get you some more placement on TV shows if you would stop using people’s names and exact dates all the time.’”

Fortunately, Kellogg has yet to listen to such advice. And music business quibbles aside it is in his spot-on character sketches that he truly proves his worth as a songwriter, especially on the wistful “Charlie and Annie,” where the tragic figures he speaks of practically walk out of the song fully-formed and looking for the love they lost.

Stephen Kellog and the Sixers (Photo courtesy of the SK6ERS)While most of Gift Horse focuses on Kellogg and his voice is front and center most of the time, without the rest of the band the gentle execution of numbers like “Song for Lovers” and “Roots and Wings” would likely be impossible. The latter song even shows a well-honed display of group dynamics as it slowly builds layer by layer with strident electric guitar before fading out over a thumping drum beat.

In the end though, the real story of the latest SK6ERS’ record is its maturity. Clearly this band, who met on grounds of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst almost a decade ago, has weathered its share of storms. Yet, by harnessing the nostalgia of their past and using it motivate themselves to even greater heights, the group has also proven that they have a very bright future.

And now, after flirting with tragedy their music has gained some added weight as well.

“I like to go for their [the fans] heartstrings,” Kellogg said. “Or their heart and their gut you know? I feel that’s the artist sort of reaching out to the listener.”

Well, if the sound of Gift Horse is any indication then the band likely won’t have to wait long before many fans start reaching back.

For more information on Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers or to see future tour dates please visit www.sk6ers.com.

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