Sydney Festival show had the makings of something spectacular.
By Brian Wise
Big Star’s Third
Enmore Theatre, Sydney – Thursday January 23, 2013
It is possible that there were as many people gathered to celebrate Big Star’s Third album (aka Sister Lovers), nearly forty years after it was recorded, as bought the album in Australia when it was originally released.
It is interesting that the legend of Big Star and this Jim Dickinson-produced album has grown so much, given the fact that it was released more than four years after the recording sessions, failed to sell (just like its predecessors) and also marked the disintegration of the band. Still, it is a wonderful example of mid-‘70s power pop with a batch of inspiring songs and hearing the album performed in concert it is easy to understand the esteem in which it is held (certainly by musicians).
So the promise of this special Sydney Festival show was in not only seeing an original member of Big Star in drummer Jody Stephens and the more ‘recent’ recruit Ken Stringfellow but also in seeing some notable international and local guests as well.
Chris Stamey (dbs)put the whole project together, assisted by Mike Mills from R.E.M, Mitch Easter (Let’s Active), along with Brett Harris and Skylar Gudasz from North Carolina who have played previous tribute shows. Kurt Vile and Chan Marshall were also present while Edwyn Collins appeared at the end of the show. There were also some notable Australians in Tim Rogers, Dave Faulkner (Hoodoo Gurus) and Kim Salmon. Throw in a twelve-piece string and brass section and it had the makings of something spectacular – and at times the evening did reach that point.
There was little narration, with just Stephens occasionally relating stories of the band and Stamey adding a few remarks. The music was left to speak for itself. The evening started Ken Stringfellow’s rendition of ‘Nature Boy,’ a song not originally issued on the album but one that Big Star recorded and which seems indicative of Alex Chilton. Naturally enough, given the fact that he had been recruited to the ‘90s line-up of Big Star, Stringfellow was a considerable presence and added his backing vocals to many of the songs.
What followed was a run through Third, not necessarily in the order in which the tracks had appeared (and there were different track listings over the years) but more in mood and logistics. With such a large cast the changeovers between songs were only occasionally clunky. Tim Rogers tackled ‘O Dana’ and ‘Take Me’ (with Stringfellow) while Kim Salmon was enthusiastic on ‘Kizza Me’ (with Stringfellow) and Dave Faulkner shone on ‘Downs’ and ‘Big Black Car’ (also with Stringfellow).
Jody Stephens stepped out from behind his drum kit on ‘For You’ and a beautiful version of ‘Blue Moon’ (one of the evening’s highlights. Stephens related the story of how his mother asked him why Big Star were so well-known in Australia and he credited Mike Mills and Peter Buck for mentioning the band in interviews and the fact that Big Star became a favourite with some critics who kept writing about it. Locals might add that another reason is that both Sydney and Melbourne enjoyed some great import record stores in the ‘70s and ‘80s that kept the music circulating. Whatever the reason, the audience obviously knew and loved all of the songs. (Kudos to the Sydney Festival for instigating this event).
Chan Marshall sang ‘Nightime’ and then ‘Holocaust’ with Kim Salmon. Perhaps the some of nicest surprises came with Brett Harris and Skylar Gudasz, who are here for the first time. They were impressive: the former on a great version of ‘Kanga Roo,’ together on ‘You Can’t Have Me’ and the latter on ‘Dream Lover.’
The set ended with a rousing version of ‘Thank You Friends’ featuring the entire cast. What followed was an encore performance that was nearly as long and contained another fifteen songs!
Stringfellow added ‘Feel’ and ‘Daisy Glaze’. Gudasz and Harris did a terrific reading of ‘Thirteen’ and ‘You and Your Sister’, as well as ‘Morpha Too.’ Stephens did ‘February’s Quiet’ and what seemed to be an obligatory ‘Way Out West’ (that is the songs fans yelled for). The ever-energetic Rogers, who seemed to have to restrain himself from dancing, did ‘Give Me Another Chance.’ Dave Faulkner sang and added cowbell to ‘In The Street.’ Mitch Easter gave a great reading of ‘Back Of A Car’ and the Kinks’ ‘Til The End Of The Day’ (adding that they had performed it in London with Ray Davies). Mike Mills explained that if he had to choose one Big Star song as his favourite it would be ‘September Gurls’ and then nailed it.
Edwyn Collins arrived on stage walking with the aid of a stick and he struggled gamely through ‘The Letter’ – the song that helped make Alex Chilton a star at sixteen years of age.
The finale came, after nearly two and a half hours – and just about all the Big Star music you would ever want to hear – with the entire cast assembled for a stirring ‘When My Baby’s Beside Me.’
Legend has it that not many people bought the first Velvet Underground album but everyone who did started a band. You could say the same thing about Big Star’s albums. Let’s hope that there will be many budding musicians inspired by this special evening to emulate the music.