Big Star Tribute Brings Together Monsters of Power Pop: Concert Review

Chris Willman
Long live revivalism

It’s not often you can go to an event where Big Star tour T-shirts are on sale in the lobby. About once every 20 years, actually. The cult band to end all cult bands broke up in 1974, then came back around a couple of decades later with a reunion tour featuring two out of four original players, including a Los Angeles House of Blues appearance in November 1994. Now there is but one surviving member, and it isn’t frontman Alex Chilton, who passed away in 2010.

But has that put the brakes on Big Star revivalism? Hardly. Much as the recent theatrical documentary about the star-crossed band was titled Nothing Can Hurt Me, nothing can dampen the obsession that successive generations of musicians have with The Little Band That Couldn’t.

That preoccupation paid off in a terrific tribute show Saturday at L.A.’s Wilshire Ebell. This was in part a continuation of a mini-tour assembled by Chris Stamey of the dB’s to play the album Third/Sister Lovers in its entirety with a group comprised largely of Southeast rock all-stars — including the likes of Mike Mills of R.E.M. and that group’s one-time producer, Mitch Easter. But the L.A. gig was also part of a series of shows produced locally by the Wild Honey Foundation to benefit autism charities, and so it followed the format of all of that organization’s concerts by offering two albums in full, not just one, plus a lot more west-coast marquee talent trading the microphone, including the Bangles, Aimee Mann, Dan Wilson, and Pete Yorn. It wouldn’t be a Big Star tribute if the cast included too many huge stars, but the lineup did include enough Monsters of Power Pop to ensure an appreciative full house.

Of course, you could argue whether Big Star was truly a power pop act or not. And the two halves of this show offered two different answers. That’s fitting, since cultists tend to project onto Big Star what they want to see, whether it’s beautiful losers, powerful progenitors of indie-rock, or what have you. First up on the program was 1972’s No. 1 Record, a commercially viable (if ultimately unsuccessful) debut that made them eternal heroes to anyone who appreciates ruggedly pretty rock classicism. After intermission, in severe “and now for something completely different” style, it was time for the 1974 recording Third/Sister Lovers, which bore almost no traces of the fun, energy, or melodicism of the first album but instead found Chilton disappearing beautifully up his own innards. The two albums don’t even sound like they were made by the same band — because they weren’t, since Third/Sister Lovers was essentially an idiosyncratic Chilton solo album in everything but billing. Somehow, as Chilton’s state of mind grew darker, the joy of being “In the Street” had given way to the portent of getting into a “Big Black Car.”

The effect of having these albums played live back-to-back was a little like seeing the Raspberries open for the Velvet Underground. Which would be, you know, a dream double-bill, so… no complaints.

At one point a host asked for a show of how many attendees were unfamiliar with Big Star’s music prior to Saturday, and a surprising smattering of applause rose up. Those folks may not even have realized, then, that they were going to hear the theme from That ‘70s Show, aka “In the Street,” with singing honors for that posthumous hit going to Mills, elevated from his background vocal duties in R.E.M. to a lead role that fits him well. Cheap Trick covered the song for TV sitcom purposes, and if you liked that group, you certainly would have liked the earwig howls of “Feel” or “Don’t Lie to Me,” sung by, successively, Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer, lead singers of the Posies, the band that merged with the remnants of Big Star for the reunion tour two decades ago.

MVP honors outside of the core group belonged to the Bangles, who first appeared assisting Dan Wilson on “The Ballad of El Goodo.” Susanna Hoffs came back to provide harmonies on “Give Me Another Chance” for Aimee Mann, casually enacting a late-‘80s dream team that only kept us waiting 25 years. Several more appearances by Hoffs and/or Vicki Peterson culminated in a closing rendition by the full group of “September Gurls,” which in the Bangles’ hands was the biggest cover Big Star got — in 1985 — before that TV license came along. They, even more than the Replacements, were the reason millions of music fans never went far without a little Big Star, wittingly or otherwise. This show couldn’t have closed any other way.

But before that crowd-pleasing encore section (which was liberally sprinkled with selections from Big Star’s middle album) came the polarizing Third/Sister Lovers. The jangly Christmas song “Jesus Christ” — sung here by Mills, with Stamey on sleigh bells — is the only song that even tries to compete in the same league as most of the debut did. As Stamey admitted, or maybe bragged, “There are a lot of songs on this record where you would think you can’t play ‘em live.” But for some of us who were never completely sold on the third album’s soul-bearing merits, it sprang utterly to life in concert with a bevy of singers who brought a pristine beauty to the emotions that Chilton’s rougher voice couldn’t. The second half also featured nearly full-time orchestration conducted by the great Van Dyke Parks. His string sections tend to combine sweetness with a bare hint of dissonance, which made him a perfect channeler for the arrangements Carl Marsh did on the original album.

Some of the most affecting vocals came from sole survivor Jody Stephens, who did most of the evening’s drumming and stepped forward to sing lead in four spots. Stephens still looks so youthful, it makes it feel all the more stranger that the other three members of Big Star are deceased. His take on “Way Out West” as a duet with Luther Russell was a moving tribute to its author, Stephens’ late bandmate Andy Hummel, who didn’t write much but came up with a humdinger that time at bat. “Love me, we can work out the rest,” they sang, in one of the most naïve or beautifully hopeful statements rock ever arrived at.

As good as it was to see all the middle-aged-timers on stage, three younger talents from Durham, N.C. were able to leave impressions as strong as anyone else on stage. Brett Harris and Django Haskins and Skylar Gudasz brought clarity and power beyond their years. Her “Thirteen” found a vocal innocence that Chilton could only write, while the haunting “Dream Lover” gorgeously invoked the “lonely quiver” that some find at the heart of Big Star’s music, in-between the power pop and the art-rock. Wouldn’t it be nice if Chilton’s music were being treated this respectfully every year? All we have to do is dream.

Set List:

#1 Record
Feel (Ken Stringfellow)
The Ballad of El Goodo (Dan Wilson with the Bangles)
In the Street (Mike Mills)
Thirteen (Skylar Gudasz)
Don’t Lie to Me (Jason Falkner and Jon Auer)
The India Song (Jody Stephens)
When My Baby’s Beside Me (GroupLove)
My Life is Right (Ken Stringfellow)
Give Me Another Chance (Aimee Mann with Susanna Hoffs)
Try Again (Django Haskins)
Watch the Sunrise (Vicki Peterson and Brett Harris)
“ST 100/6” (Auer and Stringfellow)
Third/Sister Lovers
Nature Boy (Haskins)
Kizza Me (Auer)
O Dana (Ira Kaplan)
For You (Stephens)
Nightime (Chris Stamey)
Jesus Christ (Mills)
Take Care (Tommy Keene)
Big Black Car (Sarabeth Tucek)
Stroke It Noel (Stringfellow)
Blue Moon (Stephens)
Femme Fatale (Kaplan and Stringfellow)
Dream Lover (Gudasz)
Holocaust (Haskins)
You Can’t Have Me (Gudasz)
Kanga Roo (Harris)
Thank You, Friends (all)

Encore:

Till the End of the Day (Mitch Easter)
Morpha Too (Gudasz and Harris)
You and Your Sister (Harris)
Way Out West (Stephens and Luther Russell)
Back of a Car (Auer and Stringfellow)
I Am the Cosmos (Pete Yorn)
Bangkok (Kaplan)
September Gurls (The Bangles)
I’m in Love with a Girl (Hoffs, Wilson, Pat Sansone)

Twitter: @chriswillman

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