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Reggae originators Toots and the Maytals invade Pearl Street

Toots Hibbert (Photo courtesy of Lee Abel))

Reggae and non-reggae fans alike were treated to a living legend Friday night as Toots Hibbert, the iconic leader of Jamaica’s own Toots and the Maytals, brought his group’s unique groove to the ballroom at the Pearl Street Nightclub in Northampton, Mass.

The show was part dance-party and part history lesson with the charismatic Hibbert playing the dual roles of band leader and educator.  

“I told you I was going to be your teacher this evening,” Hibbert said to the crowd part-way through his two-hour plus set. “But I never thought you would be this brilliant.”

The crowd, which grew to capacity over the course of the show, appreciably ate up the antics on stage even when matters took turns for the unpredictable. For example, almost half a dozen songs into the set, a visibly frustrated Hibbert suddenly threw his microphone to the stage after repeatedly motioning for the sound engineer to adjust his levels. However, neither the audience nor the rest of the band missed a beat during the tense moment, and the party continued while heated words were exchanged.

Still, in between ground-shaking anthems and Hibbert’s own humorous attempts at dancing, similar technical problems repeatedly plagued the remainder of the performance. Feedback from the microphones was a sporadic issue, even for powerhouse openers the Fear Nuttin’ Band, and after donning an acoustic guitar late in the night Hibbert continued his battle with the engineer by making numerous visits to the sound board to complain about his instrument. Eventually, a member of the Maytals’ staff appeared to take over sound duties as the engineer on hand threw up his hands in defeat almost half an hour before the show’s conclusion.

True Love (Album cover courtesy of Toots and the Maytals)

Yet, drawbacks aside, Hibbert and company still managed to deliver a remarkable endurance test of sorts for those looking to skank the night away. While playing fan favorites like “Pressure Drop,” “54-46 Was My Number,” as well as covers of “Louie, Louie” and “Take Me Home Country Roads” got the assembled masses swaying exuberantly along to the beat, hazy jams and frequent displays of band dynamics tended to go on longer then they should have. Again and again Hibbert would quiet the music, only to bring it quickly back up for another thrilling crescendo or moment of audience participation (hand claps were a particular favorite).

Eventually, with midnight in the rear-view mirror and those still standing looking noticeably exhausted, Toots and the Maytals left the building amidst raucous cheers and the clearing of several strange clouds of smoke. They may not have burned the house down this time, but for those in attendance the heat will no doubt remain for days to come.                

Toots and the Maytals with openers the Fear Nuttin’ Band performed Nov. 12 at the Pearl Street Nightclub, 10 Pearl St., Northampton, Mass., (413) 584-7771, For more information and tour dates please visit or


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Shawn Mullins ‘lights up’ Iron Horse in Northampton

Shawn Mullins (Photo courtesy of Michael Wilson)

For many career musicians, the challenge of staying relevant to the ever-changing taste of listeners is a lifelong struggle.

While some individuals/ bands attempt to alter their style in order to suit an audience’s mood of the moment, others stubbornly stay the course and slowly fade into the background of public consciousness, or make a living as an underground favorite. However, there are also a rare few who eschew changing the nature of their work but undergo transformations of a more personal nature.     

One of these fortunate souls is singer/ songwriter Shawn Mullins. Though most popularly known for his 1998 breakthrough hit “Lullaby,” Mullins has maintained an enduring career on the fringe, recording 11 albums, and working with fellow musicians like Matthew Sweet and the Zac Brown Band.

The Underground recently caught up with Mullins before his show at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, Mass., and asked him his thoughts on music today, songwriting, and what it’s like being a new father. Here’s what he had to say:

 Q. Your newest album, “Light You Up,” marks your eleventh release. How have you managed to stay so productive/ successful for all these years?

A. Well I’m not qualified to do much of anything else for one, but I think I’ve stayed busy with the writing by allowing it to come when it comes. As far as success goes, I think the trick is having your own measure of what success really means. I don’t really mark my success by record sales and hits songs but more by how much of myself I put in to the art.

Q. Also, on the new album you have noticeably opened up your songwriting process by including numerous co-writers. How has this experience changed the way you create music? What are some of its benefits? Drawbacks?

A. It hasn’t really changed the why I write, but by writing with other writers you get another perspective of what you are writing about. As for the benefits of co-writing, I have a lot of fun doing it. It’s kind of like putting together a crossword puzzle with someone you like to hang out with. My favorite part of co-writing is when you get to that place in the song where you are stuck on a particular word or phrase and you both are a part of finding it. The main drawback to co-writing is that once in a while you write with someone and it’s just not a good match.

Shawn Mullins' new album "Light You Up" out October 12.

Q. Speaking of changes, you recently experienced the birth of your first child. What has the past year been like in your new role as a father?

A. Well, it’s definitely different. It changed my outlook on almost everything. I find myself wanting to tour less than I have in the past and I feel a higher level of responsibility. I don’t feel like it’s changing the way I write songs at all. He’s just giving me more to write about.

Q. Your song “Lullaby” famously chronicled life on the west coast, yet you make your home in Georgia. While the influence of both locales is evident on the new album, how do you reconcile the differences between such opposite places in your music?

A. Well first of all, I write a lot about the places that I travel through and the people I meet. “Lullaby” is simply a story – part fact and part fiction – and it probably took an outsider’s perspective to write that song. Especially, the last verse that compares the seedy underbelly of Hollywood to Nashville. My last album, “Honeydew,” was mostly written about Atlanta and the new south. There’s only one “Georgia’” song on the new CD, “Catoosa County,” which is a civil war song. Most of the latest album is set in L.A., but that wasn’t really done on purpose. It wasn’t meant to be a theme. It’s just the way it all came out. I guess geography and setting [are]  pretty major ingredient[s] in my songs.

See the video for “Lullaby” here:

Q. A standout track on the new album is “The Ghost of Johnny Cash.” Did you ever get the chance to meet Johnny while he was alive? And what has his influence been on your life? Do you have any other figures in your life that have influenced you as well?

A. I never got to meet Johnny Cash. I’m a big fan though. I sometimes wonder if people really know how much he influenced rock ‘n’ roll as well as country music. I know Kris Kristofferson pretty well. He’s the ultimate songwriter’s songwriter, and he’s told me some great stories about Johnny. I met Kristofferson in 1995 and gave him on of my records. A few months later, I was sitting at home trying to write and the phone rang. It was Kris. He started quoting lines from one of my songs, and that pretty much blew my mind. Here was my hero quoting my lyric and calling me a great songwriter! That really boosted my confidence at a time when I desperately needed it. We’ve hung out several times and swapped songs. Hanging out with Kristofferson is just as amazing as you think he would be. There are other influences, but he’s always been the biggest for me. That song, “The Ghost of Johnny Cash,” was written by my friends Chuck Cannon and Phil Madeira. It’s the only cover song on the new record. It’s the ultimate tribute and tip of the hat to the man in black.

Q. You find recent chart success via your collaboration with the Zac Brown Band on “Toes.” Have you ever considered branching out into other genres, even those outside the realm of predictability, in order to expose your music to new audiences? If so, what? If not, why? Please explain.

A. Yeah, I’m open to writing any kind of music. I love all good music regardless of genre. Country music is an obvious one because it’s not that different from what I normally write. Some people say you have to “dumb it down” when you write a country song. Tell Kristofferson that! His biggest hits were country songs, and they’re brilliantly written. No matter what type of music it is, you want to communicate so that your audience gets it. I don’t assume that they’re not smart enough to get my meaning. It’s my job as a songwriter to write a song that speaks to the listener and makes them feel something. It’s not about genres to me. It’s about writing really good songs. That’s always the goal.

 Q. Tell us about some of your best and worst gigs. With a career as long as yours, does anything surprise you anymore?

A. My worst gig ever was at a club in Las Vegas, well not exactly. It was outside Vegas, not on the strip. I got heckled, which doesn’t happen too much to me. Anyway, this heckler was doing his best to ruin my show, and all of the sudden this woman jumped up and started giving him hell. It was pretty great. She totally shut this guy up, and the whole audience gave her a standing ovation. I guess that could count as one of my best gigs too now that I think about it. I don’t have a lot of bad gigs. The crowds are usually with me, and the most that can go wrong is a power outage, which has happened a few times over the years. In those situations, I just unplug and sing the rest of the concert totally acoustic. That can turn a potentially bad gig into something really special.

Mullins (Photo courtesy of Michael Wilson)

Q. Though many will forever associate you with a particular song, what else can listeners expect at one of your shows? What might they not expect?

A. If you think about it, most recording artists are known for one or two songs. I don’t mind that a bit. I’m glad to be known for any song I’ve written and recorded. But I like to change it up a bit at my concerts. Sometimes after my shows, people that have never heard me play live tell me that it was different than what they expected. I may do a country song or an old standard from the 1930s. Also I tell a few stories throughout my set. People shouldn’t expect pyrotechnics, dancers, auto-tuned vocals or backing tracks. It’s an acoustic show. I don’t pretend to be anything other than a singer and songwriter. Sometimes I get to play with my band, and that’s a really different show than my solo concerts.

Q. Do you have any advice for others out there, who are seeking to make music their vocation? Do you have any warnings?

A. My only advice to those who want a career in music is don’t be in it for the money. If that’s your reason for writing music or performing or recording, then you’re in trouble. Don’t ever do it for the money. Why? Because most great artists don’t make a lot of money. It’s the publishing companies, record companies (although these days, not so much), lawyers and managers who really earn the most money in this business. If you want to be a musician, be a musician. If you want to be rich, you’d better try something else. These days you can do just as well independently as you can as a signed artist, but you have to be willing to work really hard. Learn as much about the business of music as you can, and try to keep the art separate from all that stuff, that’s the hard part.

Q. Lastly, in the past you have had the privilege of having your music used on television shows and in feature films. And many listeners today hear new music for the first time through these mediums. What is your opinion of this process? What effects do you think this innovation might ultimately have on the way people hear/ find new music in the future? 

A. It’s definitely a big part of what makes music popular. But it has been for over 50 years already if you think about it. There weren’t rock stars before television. But the Ed Sullivan Show, American Bandstand and other television shows helped launch the careers of the greatest pop stars of the 20th century. It’s an old model with a fresh coat of paint on it. I don’t really see it as a new thing at all. But now there are more ways to be heard and seen, and I guess that’s a good thing.

Shawn Mullins performed November 4 at the  Iron Horse Music Hall, 20 Center St., Northampton, (413) 586-8686, For more information and tour dates please visit


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Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers pay tribute to late UMass band director at Northampton Show

Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers (Photo courtesy of Megan Baker)

When word first broke that UMass marching band director George Parks had died unexpectedly during a school trip to Michigan, one of those affected by the news was singer/ songwriter Stephen Kellogg.

While most popularly known as the lead singer of pop/ rock group Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers, Kellogg is also a former UMass student and marching band veteran.

During his time in Amherst, Mass. Kellogg not only got the chance to know Parks personally, but had also recently been negotiating with him to incorporate the school’s marchers into a concert to be played at the nearby Calvin Theatre in Northampton. Now, that show has been turned into a tribute to Parks with the marching band appearing as a special honor to their former leader.

The Underground recently got the chance to speak with Kellogg, and asked him about his thoughts on playing this special show, writing songs about girls, and what he remembers most about George Parks.

Q. Since the story of the Sixers first began in Western Massachusetts, do you feel any special kinship to the area?

A. Western Massachusetts has always felt like the home of the band and in many ways home to me. I haven’t lived there in some years, but I still recognize folks on the streets when I go to these places. A great deal of my family has its roots there too and some of the band still lives in the area, so no doubt it’s a special place.

Q. What are your feelings on playing a show where the group first met?

A. Excited!

Q. What if any influence do you have from your time spent at UMass?

A. Well in recent years UMass has influenced us by being supportive of us. I think I felt officially “old” when we were in Dallas last month and a big group of UMass alumni came out as part of the “alumni association.” It was the place where I made up my mind to throw in with the music career lot and it’s where I met two of the three Sixers whom have forever altered the course of my life…so I’d say it was a pretty influential place.

Q. Speaking of UMass, your upcoming show in Northampton will involve the participation of the school’s marching band as part of a tribute honoring the late George Parks. What memories do you specifically have of George, and how did the idea for this special show come about?

A. This idea was really Georges. When we shot the music video for “Shady Esperanto and the Young Hearts” last summer, it was George who pushed through the red tape to make it happen. After that he said ‘what else?’ he was that sort of guy, not one to rest on his laurels…so we started dreaming up a show, the where, the when, the how…one night John Sanders and Eric Suher suggested that the Calvin would be great and I was an intern at iheg when the Calvin re-opened in the late ‘90s, so that sounded like a thrill to me. I hit up George with the idea and he loved it. I still have a bunch of emails from George on my computer saying things like ‘this will be great…but we’ll talk later about the details.” I can’t yet bring myself to delete them.

Q. Music on television has certainly changed from the days when MTV was in its infancy. Now many listeners hear songs for the first time when they are played on their favorite television shows. What are your thoughts on this new way to hear/ expose fans to music?

A. I think it is what it is. Maybe I’m being nostalgic, but I prefer radio and even MTV, where it’s more about the music (as a way to consume the music I listen to). When there is a dramatic TV show cutting the song in and out it’s not exactly “ideal,” but hey this is what’s going on and I’m not about to say that it’s bad- it just is.

Q. And what are your feelings on having your song “Shady” used as part of the promotional campaign for TNT’s show “Men of a Certain Age”?

A. My previous answer notwithstanding, I’m totally thrilled to have the song being used here. I think it’s a great fit for a great show and I’m honored by the opportunity.

Q. Like many other bands, you have spent time performing for the troops overseas. What was that experience like?

A. It’s amazing to see the job our military has, amazing to meet those people and to be running across each other all over the globe…pretty wild. It only ups my appreciation for all that we have in America. It makes me want to be less cynical about problems and more focused on problem solving-helping the situation rather than always tearing down.

Q. And how was it performing in front of the Prime Minister of Israel?

A. I don’t think I could say Netanyahu is a SK6ERS fan in good conscience as I’m not sure we had his full attention, but he was certainly there and it was a day well spent.

Sixers (Photo courtesy of Megan Baker)

Q. How important is charity work not only to you, but also to the band? What is like having such a close relationship with the children of St. Jude’s Hospital?

A. The bottom line is that it needs to be even more important than it is. We have this amazing job and ability to reach people who nine times out of 10 would love to “make a difference.” St. Jude is one of the finest hospitals in the country and an inspiration to our band, so they are a logical place for us to focus our efforts, but it’s easy to get overwhelmed by one’s own concerns and fears…staying involved with the charity branch of what SK6ERS do helps keep our perspective.

Q. Also on the subject of charity, the members of fellow New England band State Radio are frequently noted for their pre-show activism. For example, the 5k the group runs before their annual Halloween show in Northampton is a fundraiser that raises money for a variety of charitable causes. Have you or your band ever thought about doing something similar? What are some ways you get your fans involved in charity work?

A. Chad (of State Radio) is one of my favorite people and a total inspiration to me and our guys. State Radio is amazing with their ability to bring their fans to action, and when you speak with them it’s evident that it all starts with the initiative of the band. “SK6ERS” causes tend to be a bit more domestic then international, but we’ve actually been involved in a number of “Calling All Crows” events and modeled our “Rellogg Foundation” after theirs…I’m not sure I could run five miles though, so we’ll have to find some other outreach ideas (joking…kind of).

Q. You seem to have a penchant for titling songs after women’s names? Is there any particular reason for this, or do you just naturally turn to songwriting when thinking “About a Girl”?

A. It’s funny you called me out on this! I noticed that for the first time this tour because a lot of the songs we have been playing this tour are the ones with girls names in the chorus. There are usually only one or two a record, but together, it can feel like I’m going through a black book or something. Even since the last record I’ve written a few more…I guess it’s one of ‘my things, but I will say this…the songs aren’t all love songs about ladies. “Mabeline” is about an undercover cop that busted one of my uncles for drug dealing, “Oh Adeline” is about faith, a (with love) teenage pregnancy and the family wheel…so if the name theme is consistent, they are pretty different tunes…do I sound defensive yet? Well played.

Q. Life on tour is a constant rollercoaster, full of ups and downs. How do you cope with that particular lifestyle?

A. I work with some of the best friends I’ve ever had. I mail postcards home several times a week. Eight years ago I hired my cousin Jessica to tour manage our band and it’s one of the best business decisions I’ve ever made-she’s been known to rub Bager balm on the guys temples to help us sleep. There’s no substitute for TLC.

Q. While on the road, do you ever feel like the situation you describe in the song “Lonely in Columbus”?

A. I do sometimes feel that way. I felt that way when i wrote that song-like the world is just not a safe place to be and too exposed-like a turtle with no shell. Thank goodness it’s not all the time.

Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers with openers Hoots and Hellmouth, and a special appearance by the UMass marching band, October 28, 8 p.m., $20, The Calvin Theatre, 19 King St., Northampton, (413) 586-8686,

For more information and tour dates please visit

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