sat 13/07/2024

Big Star Third, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Big Star Third, Barbican

Big Star Third, Barbican

Multi-generational tribute to the Memphis musical wonders with a bit of Muswell Hill magic

Big Star in 1972, ready for blast off. Left to right: Andy Hummel, Jody Stephens, Chris Bell, Alex ChiltonJohn Fry, courtesy of the Barbican

“You're a wasted face, you're a sad-eyed lie, you're a holocaust.” The devastation of Big Star’s “Holocaust” manifested the mood of the album it was recorded for, which was supposed to be the Memphis band’s third. Last night celebrated this classic musical evocation of fragmentation. Capturing that on stage was a tall order.

Playing the songs along with a string section reading from sheet music could never be as spontaneous as the chaotic, booze-fuelled sessions that birthed what became Third.

Even so, this extraordinary album was brought to life, a life it never had back in 1974 when it was recorded - or in 1975, when it was shelved. This new afterlife netted a terrific cross-generational array of musicians. Masterminded by The dBs' Chris Stamey, this concert found Big Star’s Jody Stephens sharing the stage with R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, Robyn Hitchcock, Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor, Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub, Lets Active's Mitch Easter, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow from The Posies and Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan – and Ray Davies, of whom more later.

Big Star Chris Stamey Jody StephensVocalists came and went, instruments were swapped. We didn't need to be told who was who, which broke the flow. Some, like Alexis Taylor (singing “Nightime”), seemed overwhelmed by the occasion and a little lost. Some overcompensated and oversang, like Sondre Lerche’s run-through of the Big Star-ised Velvet Underground song “Femme Fatale”. Relaxation was the best policy. For “Kizza Me”, Mitch Easter ditched the template and chucked in random guitar runs that fitted the chopping, changing structure perfectly. Mike Mills did a little hula and radiated joy. Most affecting was a shimmering "Blue Moon”, sung by an unfeasibly well-preserved Jody Stephens. The live reimagining was all the more rewarding as it was as erratic as the album itself. (Pictured right, Chris Stamey [left] with Jody Stephens. Photo by Daniel Coston)

Appropriately, Big Star didn’t last long and were never stable. Formed in Memphis in 1971, the band coalesced around ex-Box Tops frontman Alex Chilton. The melodic rock of their first two albums, #1 Record and Radio City, wasn’t inaccessible and 1972 saw the similarly inclined Raspberries climb the US charts. But Chilton, Chris Bell, Andy Hummel and Stephens weren’t destined for success.


Bell left in 1972 after the release of #1 Record. By the time it was decided to record a third album in 1974, just Chilton and Stephens convened with producer Jim Dickinson at Ardent Studios. Although the album was mixed in 1975, it took until 1978 for it to come out when it was credited to Big Star, even though the band had fizzled out. The new wave came along and, like The Velvet Underground, Chilton and Big Star were finally in tune with the times.

Ray Davies spoke movingly of his friendship with Alex Chilton

Chief amongst the late Seventies torch-bearers were Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple of North Carolina band The dBs. Holsapple would hand out cassettes of the then-unreleased Third. Stamey issued a Chris Bell single on his Car imprint and recorded with Chilton. Stamey and Holsapple’s friend Mitch Easter – who produced the early R.E.M. – was another early acolyte. Word spread. Third’s "Kangaroo" and "Holocaust" were covered on This Mortal Coil’s It'll End in Tears in 1984 . The Teenage Fanclub unashamedly borrowed the Big Star sound. In 1993 Big Star reformed when Chilton and Stephens united with Auer and Stringfellow of The Posies. Sporadic further activity led to new recordings as Big Star. A definitive box set of the original band arrived in 2009. Stephens is the only surviving member: Bell had died in a car crash in 1978, and both Chilton and Hummel died in 2010. So this was a gathering of disciples.

After Third and the interval, the cast reassembled to tackle more Big Star and related material. Some songs weren't surprising: a sensitive Norman Blake-dominated “I’m in Love With a Girl”, a Mike Mills-sung charge through "September Gurls”. Hearing Chris Bell’s “I Am the Cosmos” was fabulous. But Ray Davies was a surprise. He spoke movingly of his friendship with Chilton and sang a high-octane “Til the End of the Day”, the Kinks’ song that Big Star covered. He then made The Box Tops' "The Letter" his own.

More than a tribute to Big Star’s Third, last night was about Alex Chilton, the man who created much of this music. That one man could have written so many incredible songs, each so different from the next, is hard to take in. He wasn’t there, but more so than his talent, his presence was felt.

Watch producer Jim Dickinson discussing the making of Big Star’s Third


More than a tribute to Big Star’s 'Third', last night was about Alex Chilton, the man who created much of this music


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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God I thought this was a terrible show (not to take your enjoyment away). Lots of respect for many of the artists involved (didn't Jody look good?) but none of this worked for me -- draggy songs, draggy renditions, hated HATED the second half -- like "You've done the hard stuff, now here's the HITS" -- so awful. Awful! Kind of sad about it really. Third is one my all time favourite records.

Personally I thought it was a great show. You could have left at the interval if you only like 3rd, what did you expect them to do, the whole album again? As for describing the the second half as the 'hits' I can only guess you're being ironic? The 'hits' like the 'foot on the monitors rock out' of Thirteen? The 'feelgood singlaong' of Daisy Glaze? The 'lighters in the air' I am the Cosmos? If you think the 'hard' stuff is on 3rd I suggest you go back and listen to the records, rather than just listening to the critics.

Draggy songs? Eh? That's intergral to the essence of Big Star's Third. And yes, the show was erratic - that's what made it great and fascinating: capturing the spirit of both Big Star and Third.

Well, wow, that IS sad: I'm genuinely a bit shocked that someone could manage not to enjoy that show. Someone who likes Big Star I mean...! I thought it was a fantastic atmosphere as - fans in the auditorium and fans on stage. A lot of love, as they say. Ok, some performances were better than others, but some were excellent. I'm glad Kieron mentioned Blue Moon, that was stunning. Mike Mills was on fantastic form, some of the younger guys were shit hot [not that I'm entirely sure who was who - it took me a while to work out who that 35-year-old on the drums was]

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