Big Star's Third
In the chronicles of the now absurdly revered Memphis alt rock originators, Big Star, the third record called appropriately enough, Third (or sometimes Sister Lovers) is perhaps the band’s best record. That’s only true of course if slow, often gossamer thin melodies pitched too high so that Alex Chilton’s voice couldn’t help sounding anguished and lyrics that fit under the term of “Fragile” or “Twisted,” and a pervasive feeling of doom (with several outbursts of partly cloudy pop rock) are your thing. In my case, if the weirdness fits, wear it and so like most other indie rock geeks in the NYC area I stood in line outside Baruch College’s Mason Hall in freezing weather and finally went through metal detectors to get in (Baruch is part of NYC City College and all NYC governmental institutions require you to go through metal detectors, which actually makes sense considering NYC’s terrorist history).
The concert, the proceeds from which benefited the New Orleans Musicians Clinic and the Corona Youth Music Project in Queens, was the baby of Chris Stamey who was a member of another semilegendary act, the dBs, who took much inspiration from Alex Chilton and his merry men. For the occasion he brought aboard a delightful cast of like minded musicians including a rhythm section of original Big Star drummer Jody Stephens (the only surviving original member) and R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills, Matthew Sweet, Tift Merritt, Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tango, Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake, Michael Stipe and the great Mitch Easter whose super groovy suit, neck scarf and white patent leather shoes were the evening’s visual highlight.
Tift Merritt was a highlight of the show.
Tribute shows are much like tribute records: the final product is all about how much good energy went in and in this case it seems that things like rehearsal time and planning on the 27 song set did actually happen. The string and woodwind ensembles that were present on the record were played her by a small orchestra that sat all stage all evening. Performers all their took turns singing. Stamey and the record’s original arranger, Carl Marsh either reconstructed the original string and wind arrangements, or in the case of eight tunes, new orchestrations were supplied by Stamey. The big star turn (no pun intended) was supplied by the ever serious Stipe who did a solemn rendition of “Kanga Roo” and spirited run through of Chilton’s biggest hit, “The Letter” which he recorded with his preBig Star band, The Box Tops. Stipe held a blow dryer in front of the microphone to simulate the airplanes sounds on the original record. It was those kinds of details that made the show a wellplayed and a fitting tribute to the late Alex Chilton, Chris Bell and Andy Hummel. Norman Blake’s respectful version of “I Am the Cosmos (from Chris Bell’s 1992 solo record) was also a highlight as was Sweet’s rambunctious “Kizza Me,” and Mike Mills heartfelt, “Jesus Christ,” which I've always felt is the most tuneful song on the record. A rocked out version of The Replacements tune, “Alex Chilton” was the best part of an long encore set that closed out hat was a passionate tribute to the band that created what came a decade later to be known as alternative rock.