As a devotee of Big Star, it’s difficult to write with the objectivity of a critic, but I will give it my most honest try. For Sunday night’s presentation – as this wasn’t just “a concert” – was a moment of pure musical delight; one which many fans of this well-loved band will remember as “one of the best”. Even if you don’t know Big Star or aren’t as deeply into them as most fans are, you couldn’t help but be moved by this show. The words that spring to mind are: powerful, exhilarating, uplifting, emotional. In a word, a joyous occasion – something truly special.
Kudos and credit to the incredible (and legendary in his own right) Chris Stamey (from The dB’s) for his work as musical director of this loving tribute to a band that is now well-documented and could easily be seen as one of the most influential in history. But let me not digress. The musicians assembled for this was inspired and worked together beautifully. And although this was presented or advertised as a performance of 3rd, it was really a far more complete revue of most of the Big Star canon as well as several songs from Chris Bell. For those uninformed, Big Star’s co-founder, who left after the first album and tragically died in a car accident in 1978 at the age of 27 with just one solo single released just before his passing – “I Am The Cosmos”/”You And Your Sister”, which was, in fact, issued by Chris Stamey and Richard Lloyd on their Car Records label. Amongst the luminaries who lent their talents were Mitch Easter (guitar), Richard Lloyd (guitar), Ken Stringfellow (bass), Marshall Crenshaw (guitar) and of course, the sole surviving member of Big Star, the incredible Jody Stephens on drums – plus a string section and the Uptown Horns – a full complement for a complete spectacle.
The show opened with “Feel”, from #1 Record, sung by Ken Stringfellow of The Posies/Big Star – a perfect start with a tight, balls-out rendition. This was the natural way to kick off the proceedings, as it’s the first track from #1 Record and in his 17 years with Big Star, Stringfellow delivered it flawlessly time and time again. Mike Mills and Marshall Crenshaw then led with “In The Street”, which everyone seemed to sing along with. Chris Stamey took the lead vocal on “Back Of A Car”, which was musically on-point. I should say here that the music sounded (nearly) identical to the recorded versions – just with different singers, which made the festivities even sweeter, aurally speaking. And to add even more potency, from the moment the musicians took to the stage, you could feel the vibe of excitement and fun coming off the stage – it was obvious that the words “a good time” had to have been the war cry.
Pete Yorn came out with Richard Lloyd and proceeded to tear it up with a stomping version of “Don’t Lie To Me”, which had the audience moving. My personal favorite, “When My Baby’s Beside Me”, was led by Ken and Chris – dead-on vocals, every note and riff that’s engrained in my mind and my fingers was accurate.
A delicate reading of “Thirteen” followed, performed by Skylar Gudasz, Django Haskins and Brett Harris (much more on him, later). This was an interesting interpretation, having it sung from the female perspective. Water-tight three-part harmonies; shimmering, gentle and touching. Brett Harris then took the lead for “Give Me Another Chance” – his delivery was smooth and sweet; this rendition was brought to an even higher plane with the emotional sounds from the string section.
Chris Stamey then announced they would be taking a break until the skies were a little darker before they would begin the performance of 3rd. My presumption is that the evening would lend a greater ambiance to what is a very dark piece of work. Nonetheless, after a short while, Mike Mills came back out to introduce the 3rd portion and it was quite the ride.
Django Haskins (from The Old Ceremony) started it off with “Nature Boy” (a Nat King Cole standard that featured Alex Chilton singing and renowned photographer William Eggleston on piano on the 3rd version). Slow, lamenting, melancholic – it was a fine start to what is considered a shambolic but dynamic body of work. Please note: the album was not performed in its sequenced order; I think this was a wise choice as the drama and tension builds up to greater effect.
Ken Stringfellow and Django Haskins then knocked it out of the park with another dead-on vocal for “Kizza Me”, complete with the cacophonous arrangements from the string and horn sections; simply outstanding. “O Dana” received an upbeat, warm and rousing reading from Marshall Crenshaw.
The absolute highpoint came next – to many cheers – with Jody Stephens coming out from behind his drums to sing his beautiful “For You”. Flawless and powerful, his voice is as perfect live at it is on record. Becky Stark came on for “Night Time” – which was interrupted by feedback; Chris Stamey stopped everyone in the middle and started from the top – which seemed to be good fun for everyone – and her approach was warm and sweet, with a fitting arrangement of accordion, strings and pedal steel (maybe it was a slide?) guitar.
Mike Mills brought on the next high point with an incredibly rousing rendition of “Jesus Christ”. His boisterous vocals and cajoling of the audience gave the number one of the “sing along” moments of the show, especially with the background singers and the very boisterous horn section, complete with a hot sax solo. And it has to be noted that his vocal on this was eerily Chilton-esque. Django Haskins’ version of “Take Care” was emotional and somewhat haunting; “Big Black Car” took the show to its next height with a sensitive and eerily melodic reading. It captured the recorded version’s desolate feeling with powerfully on-the-one harmonies by Django Haskins and Chris Stamey. This was the section of the show referred to as “when shit gets weird”.
Kurt Vile re-energized things with a kick-in-the-ass offering of “Stroke It Noel”; Jody Stephens returned to the front for a sublime “Blue Moon” followed by another very high mark: Brett Harris with Becky Stark performing “Femme Fatale”. I have never been a fan of The Velvet Underground; Alex Chilton’s slant of this song on 3rd was a sweet version, but Brett and Becky’s delivery one has to be one of the finest performances I can recall – and I’ve heard many covers of this. And it showed the dynamic range of Brett Harris’ voice – I think he may have been the “secret weapon” of this show.
The Uptown Horns made their way up to stage front for the powerhouse of “Downs”; then Sharon Van Etten came out and duetted with Ken Stringfellow on “Dream Lover”. One of the most somber musical moments was Jonathan Donahue of Mercury Rev, who held the crowd with an ethereal and hanuting version of “Holocaust” – again, by virtue of the musicians on stage, it was powerful, somewhat painful and 100% on its mark. “You Can’t Have Me” was the group rave-up, with Sharon Van Etten and Brett Harris and Chris Stamey nailed it with “Kanga Roo” – note perfect.
A shift in direction led to the Chris Bell-tribute section, which was heartbreaking, uplifting and so fitting. Brett Harris’ take on “You And Your Sister” was a breathtaking moment – the gentility of the song fitting the warmth of the night; Sharon Van Etten’s “There Was A Light” = mournful, world-weary and her voice touched a new emotional area in Chris Bell’s lyrics. Pete Yorn came back to share the mic with Ken Stringfellow for “I Am The Cosmos”, which confessedly, had me a bit choked up; the meaningfulness of the lyrics cannot be overlooked and I felt that performance.
An upbeat version of “February’s Quiet” from the In Space album restored the pop punch before Mike Mills came back out to sing lead on a boisterous “September Gurls” (and if I remember correctly, he sang the second verse twice!). Marshall Crenshaw and Richard Lloyd absolutely nailed The Box Tops’ “The Letter”, complete with the horn punches and airplane effects as heard on the original record and a scorching Richard Lloyd guitar freak-out solo at the end. Finally, “Thank You, Friends”, sung by Chris Stamey – and everyone else – closed out the night in perfect fashion. And in reality, that’s what it felt like – being there with the crowd, hearing these songs performed by those people – a very special group of friends, playing, sharing and rejoicing at this timeless music of Big Star.
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