New Release Goes a Long Way Toward Answering the Question
“It's like an alternate history hugest Pop band in the world.”
You’ve probably never heard of the band, Big Star, unless you’re:
a. a musicologist
b. a record store clerk
c. a musician
d. a person who is really into music
e. someone who knows one of the above
My point being that the average person has never heard of Big Star (and probably wouldn’t care about them if they did). A band who only (officially) existed for three years, from 1972-1975, had zero hit singles, only two proper albums and played live probably less than a hundred times, Big Star (on paper) is the definition of a never-has-been group of four guys who should have rightfully deserved to be consigned to the bargain bin of time.
Long after the group had broken up and its members either went their separate ways or died, small groups of young musicians began to rediscover their albums that had never, really, been discovered in the first place. As these young music groups began to gain popularity (R.E.M., The Bangles, The Replacements, et. al.), they started to spread the gospel of Big Star. That gospel continues to spread incrementally, through the categories of people mentioned above, to this day.
Now, I’m not here to discuss the history of this ill-fated band, or their resurgence and partial reunion in the 1990’s. For that information, you can look to either Rob Jancovic’s incredibly detailed journal, Big Star: The Short Life, Painful Death, and Unexpected Resurrection of the Kings of Power Pop or take a look at Drew DiNicola’s exhaustive and beautiful documentary, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, both available through Amazon and other retailers.
|New Incarnation: Auer, Chilton, Stephens, Stringfellow|
In this blog entry, I’m going to talk about what happened after. After all of that. After the deaths of founding members Chris Bell (in 1978) and Alex Chilton & Andy Hummel (both in 2010). When the only surviving members of the band were the original drummer, Jody Stephens, and the two members of The Posies (Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow) that helped to reconstitute the band, substituting for Chris and Andy from 1993-2010.
The death of Alex Chilton (whose own story can be read in A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man by Holly George-Warren) in 2010 of heart issues, only days before the band were slated to play at Austin’s SXSW Conference, sent the festival’s musical community into a crisis of conscience. Should they continue to play, even without Alex? That seemed irreverent and almost blasphemous. Alex Chilton was Big Star. Without him, it was just two guys from The Posies and Big Star’s drummer. That wasn’t Big Star. Their first inclination was “no”.
But then other musicians attending the fest began to contact the three remaining members. They had all been touched by Big Star’s music and they wanted to turn the show into a memorial. They would step in and sing in Alex’s place. Evan Dando, Mike Mills, Sondre Lerche, John Doe, Chris Stamey and others ended up joining the frontman-less trio onstage for an elegiac consummation of Alex Chilton’s talent and Big Star itself. Jon Auer later stated, “After Alex died, there was no way that we could see to continue to do this music legitimately.” And that was the end of Big Star.
Or was it?
Chris Stamey (of the dB’s) who had played with Chilton way back in the late 70’s during Alex’s “punk” phase, had the idea to get ahold of the original string scores for Big Star’s ill-fated Third record and see if he could get a group together to perform it. All of the old creative gang were amenable. Original composer Carl Marsh said that he would recreate whatever was lost. Jody Stephens said he’d be willing to play drums. Mitch Easter (Let’s Active) wanted in. R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, too. Ken and Jon wanted to continue to play Big Star music, so they were on board. Some other musicians got involved and everyone learned Third, and every other Big Star or related song they could, going back to the master tapes and carefully going over each individual track. If the song had four guitar overdubs, they all agreed on having four guitars onstage. Each part was meticulously duplicated.
But they daren’t call themselves Big Star. Because they weren’t. Big Star was Alex and Chris and Andy and Jody. The 90’s incarnation weren’t really Big Star either, as much as we all wanted them to be. They were a second rate simulation. I know. I saw them once. It was emotionally thrilling. I was seeing Big Star! But, in reality it was a paint-by-numbers performance. Alex put zero passion into what he, clearly, saw as just another money making operation. Hell, during this time period he did reunion shows with the Box Tops as often as he would with Big Star.
The new group decided to call itself Big Star’s Third Live, a rather unwieldy name; hard to fit on a marquee, but it told the audience what to expect. They weren’t a tribute band. This wasn’t “The Pink Floyd Experience”. Nor was it “Cheap Trick performs In Color in its entirely plus other hits”. Neither was it some kind of one-off “Tribute to Big Star” featuring Bruce Springsteen and others. This was a collective of, mostly minor, underground or unknown musicians who had, now, dedicated themselves to preserving the music of Big Star in a way that had never been done before. “This is a band giving tribute to themselves,” guest artist Robyn Hitchcock said. It wasn’t an “oldies” show. It was a show that was insisting that this music was as vital and as important as it had ever been. Maybe more so.
So, for the past six or seven years, Big Star’s Third Live have been gathering around four times a year, in various locations, incorporating various guest artists (a list of whom would take up too much space) from the environs and putting on a concert that celebrates the beauty and importance of the music of Big Star. I’ve got bootlegs of about half a dozen of these shows. The performance at the Barbican Hall in London in 2012, guest starring locals Norman Blake and Ray Davies, is a thing of beauty. The sound quality is good. Not great, but listenable. Some of the other BS3L boots are taken from radio broadcasts and sound very clear.
|The Barbican Show, London 2012|