Big Star Third
Vocalists as in text
Jody Stephens (drums), Mike Mills & Ken Stringfellow (electric basses), Mitch Easter & Chris Stamey (guitars), Charles Cleaver (piano / accordion / mellotron), Alexis Taylor (percussion)
Terry Edwards (conductor / flutes & saxophones)
Django Haskins – Master of ceremonies
Chris Stamey – Musical director
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 28 May, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
If the Beach Boys’ Smile was the album that never was, Big Star’s Third was the album that almost might have been. But then, “might have” is the key phrase in the career of a band whose initial two albums – 1972’s #1 Record and 1973’s Radio City – failed to match their critical acclaim with sales figures through a combination of bad distribution and an unspoken belief that Anglophile rock bands were not supposed to come out of an environment such as Memphis. When the band disintegrated in the wake of protracted sessions for its third album, it looked certain a remarkable if unorthodox collection of songs was destined to remain under-wraps.
Unlike Smile, however, Third – also referred to as Sister Lovers and Beale St Green (after band relationships and song references respectively) – soon escaped the clutches of pirate releases, with all the completed songs having been ‘officially’ available for over two decades. Several even made it to performance after the band returned to the live circuit in the early 1990s, thereafter enjoying a sporadic existence until the sudden death of its co-founder and leading light Alex Chilton two years ago. Even then, the notion of rendering the always problematic third album in its entirety was in circulation, finally coming to fruition with a relatively low-key presentation in Carrboro in December 2010 followed by a much higher-profile one in New York the following March. For these, as for subsequent performances, the commitment of all-round musician Chris Stamey – who relocated the original session material and gave the project its unwavering focus – cannot be overestimated.
What took place at the Barbican Hall was a two-part event, the first of which presented Third as a 17-song entity performed by a veritable roll-call of Anglo-American singers and players wholly steeped in the power-pop lineage to which Big Star appears as an unwitting touchstone. While the order was clearly dictated by the live context, moreover, it is worth remembering that only the barest outline of a playing sequence had been established at the time that the sessions broke up.
Although reckless covers of ‘Till The End Of The Day’ (see below) and ‘Whole Lotta Shaking’ were excluded, ‘Nature Boy’ did feature as an entrée – its poignancy oddly enhanced by a wheedling vocal from John Bramwell. Mitch Easter went for the jugular in his take on ‘Kizza Me’ and Ira Kaplan wrung out the heartache of ‘O Dana’, then Jody Stephens (only surviving member of Big Star) gave a soulful account of his only number ‘For You’. Alexis Taylor brought an affecting poise to the wistful ‘Nightime’ and Mike Mills re-lived memories of his REM backing vocals with a spirited version of the mock-celebratory ‘Jesus Christ’, before Jon Auer brought out the dazed introspectiveness of ‘Big Black Car’ and Ira Kaplan almost convinced that the valedictory ‘Take Care’ was not best reserved for the album’s close.
The sequence continued with ‘Stroke It, Noel’, elegant rendered by Norman Blake (his band Teenage Fanclub having carried the power pop torch in the UK for over a quarter-century), which term was hardly applicable to Sondre Lerche’s overwrought take on ‘Femme Fatale’ – a reminder that cover versions on other’s albums need to be handled advisedly. By contrast, Robyn Hitchcock’s breezy take on ‘Downs’ – replete with steel-pan and bouncing basket-ball courtesy of Mills – underlined how near the original demo came to ‘single’ status, while Sharon Van Etten brought an intense yearning to the desolate ‘Dream Lover’ with which the original sessions had signed off. Stephens returned with a melting rendition of the sublime ‘Blue Moon’ (enhanced by bassoon playing from Rosie Moore) – as much a song of love as ‘Holocaust’ is a cry of anguish and never more so than in Django Haskins’s keening version with its instrumental backdrop of mounting intensity. Van Etten lightened without softening the tone in her uninhibited attack on the defiant ‘You Can’t Have Me’, before Brett Harris eloquently confirmed ‘Kanga Roo’ as the album’s highpoint of creative daring. It remained for ‘Thank You, Friends’ to round off proceedings with its feigned optimism to which the assembled vocalists gave full vent.
Everyone duly reassembled for a ‘surprise assortment’ of Big Star-related songs – Lerche more at ease in the teenage heartache of ‘Thirteen’, with Blake equally adept in the gentle warmth of ‘I’m In Love With A Girl’ and heart-on-sleeve pleading of ‘Give Me Another Chance’. Departed co-founder Chris Bell’s prowess shone forth in Auer’s powerful take on the soaring ‘I Am The Cosmos’, complemented by Ken Stringfellow’s rapt response to ‘There Was A Light’ and Brett Harris’s chaste rendering of the peerless ‘You And Your Sister’. Stringfellow pointed up the disparity with Chilton’s implosive ‘Daisy Glaze’, Ira Kaplan brought charm without coyness to ‘The EMI Song’ (aka ‘Smile With Me’) and Lerche teased out vulnerability behind the resolve in ‘The Ballad of El Goodo’. It was left to Mike Mills to tackle head-on ‘September Gurls’, the audience adding its presence to a song equalled by few and surpassed by fewer for anthemic immediacy.
A final surprise came as Ray Davies sauntered on for an impromptu rendition of The Kinks’ ‘Till The End Of The Day’, given with notable fidelity to Big Star’s ragged reassessment, followed by an explosive take on The Box Tops’ ‘The Letter’ with which the teenage Chilton first gave notice of his distinctive talent some 45 years ago. Given the 8 o’clock start, it was hardly surprising the concert ran well past the 10.30 mark, but those present wanted more and John Auer obliged with a brazen account of ‘Back of a Car’ – another Big Star track to have had a lasting influence on all those who value the pop-song’s ability to provoke as well as to entertain.