Lori McKenna and Stephen Kellogg showcase their songs
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., May 20, 2002) – Personality plays a central role in performance, perhaps nowhere moreso than in the confessional singer-songwriter genre. Thus the double-bill of upcoming singer-songwriters Lori McKenna and Stephen Kellogg on Saturday night at Club Helsinki offered a good primer in comparisons and contrasts in how personality affects a performance.

McKenna was up first, fronting a three-piece band featuring bassist Andrew Mazzone and Jimmy Ryan playing an electric mandolin that looked like a mini-guitar. McKenna’s dynamic, twangy vocals, familiar from her good CD, Pieces of Me (Catalyst), were fully in evidence, although in person her voice was deeper and richer, with more of a natural vibrato.

McKenna’s songs were about friends, family and life in a small town. A lifelong native of Stoughton, she sang with conviction and authority of territory she knows well, with no pretense or artifice. She was poetic without being self-conscious or literary, and personal without being self-indulgent.

With their country-influenced melodies and rhythms, songs like “I Ran as Fast as I Could” and “Reborn” did nothing to dispel the frequent comparisons McKenna evinces to country-influenced singer-songwriters like Mary Chapin Carpenter, Nanci Griffith and Roseanne Cash. Indeed, with its high-lonesome melody and death-haunted lyrics, “Reborn” could well be her rewrite of “Man of Constant Sorrow.”

But there was a subtle but convincing toughness in McKenna’s performance. It was nothing that she said, and it was belied by her gentle presence. But it fully emanated through her powerful singing and the confidence imbued in passing lyrics – “Things break when you tear them apart,” “When it’s love, it will pour” – enough so that by the end, McKenna seemed at least spiritually to have more in common with the small-town, blue-collar rocker side of Bruce Springsteen than any obvious girl with a twang.

Stephen Kellogg, on the other hand, exuded natural, boyish charisma in his set, such that it nearly overwhelmed his not insignificant musical assets. Backed by a four-piece band including himself on acoustic guitar, he played a classic style of folk-rock recalling Van Morrison and “Blood on the Tracks”-era Bob Dylan, perhaps filtered through modern bands like the Wallflowers and Counting Crows.

It took a while for Kellogg’s voice to warm up and gain color – at first it was a drab mumble – but once it did it boasted a plaintive earnestness similar to that of Adam Duritz. He played up his status as a refugee from rock ‘n’ roll in songs that talked about life on the road and having rock star ambitions, but it was all rendered in good humor and with a sincere, winning modesty.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on May 22, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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