“An emotional bond there.” (—Jody Stephens): A new concert documentary and accompanying live album document a key Big Star’s Third performance, bringing both catharsis and closure to a long grieving period that’s ultimately transformed into a celebration.
BY FRED MILLS, MICHAEL TOLAND & JOHN B. MOORE
It is, in a very real sense, a culmination. The new DVD/2CD release Thank You, Friends: Big Star’s Third Live… and More (Concord Bicyle Music), that is, and a culmination of many things—the trajectory of the troubled (at times near-mythic) third Big Star studio album, originally recorded in 1974 but not released until years after the band had splintered; the subsequent Third (aka Sister Lovers) revival as pushed by Alex Chilton acolytes of the Amerindie ‘80s underground, chief among them members and intimates of The dB’s, whose Chris Stamey had also worked with Chilton; an eventual reunion of Big Star in the ‘90s, with two members of the Posies drafted to bolster Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens in the absence of bassist Andy Hummel and late guitarist Chris Bell—a reunion that came to a tragic end in 2010 when Chilton passed away from a heart attack on the eve of the band performing in Austin at SXSW, thereby ensuring that no one would ever get to hear Chilton himself perform Third; and of course Stamey’s ambitious Big Star’s Third live project, initially mounted at the tail end of 2010 as a concert tribute to the memory of Chilton, and going on to be intermittently staged in numerous cities and countries over the course of the next six years, to much acclaim.
So Big Star’s Third Live brings with it a whiff of finality. Clearly I don’t mean that there won’t be any more artifacts excavated from the vaults; for example, as a recent, exhaustive nine-disc bootleg collection demonstrates, there are a number of tracks that remain officially unreleased, even though the diligent archivists at Omnivore have done some impressive vault-digging themselves as regards material from the Third era. Nor am I suggesting that there won’t be any more live performances of Third or tribute concerts or even potential get-togethers between Stephens and Posies Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer; all that and more is far more likely than not to go down in the future.
No, by “finality” I mean closure for all of us, a means by which to collectively grieve and celebrate, even for those not able to attend one of the live shows. Channeling both those emotions for us, Third Live mainstays Stamey, Stephens, Mitch Easter and Mike Mills—along with string players and a slew of guest vocalists that have included, since 2010, everyone from Matthew Sweet, Robyn Hitchcock and the two Posies, to Stamey’s North Carolina collaborators Brett Harris, Skyler Gudasz (both pictured above), and Django Haskins—brought the music vividly alive at the appropriately named Alex Theatre, in Glendale, Calif., almost exactly one year ago (April 27, 2016), for the camera lenses of director Benno Nelson. As you’ll read below in our tag-team review treatment, it’s a cathartic home-viewing and –listening experience for any fan of Chilton and Big Star—and, I should add, Chris Bell as well, as Stamey (pictured, below) was mindful to include—and sing, with a gorgeous, emphatic grace—Bell’s timeless “I Am The Cosmos” in the Third Live performances.
It’s particularly gratifying for those of us here at BLURT. We’ve covered Big Star scores of times in the past, of course, via obituaries for both Chilton and Andy Hummel; reviewing the Third reissue as well as the Keep an Eye on the Sky career overview box set; covering and photographing the live Third concerts; writing about Holly George-Warren’s exhaustive biography of Chilton; interviewing Drew DeNicola, director of the 2012 Big Star documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me; and more. But the band is perhaps closest to our hearts because of the personal connection we’ve forged over time. Not just as fans of the records—yours truly has had the pleasure of interviewing and writing about Big Star in the past, additionally hanging out with Chilton many years ago (he even played my old acoustic guitar for the MTV cameras once upon a time); our publisher Stephen Judge, who is good friends with Stephens, Auer and Stringfellow, was at SXSW that March of 2010 when the news of Chilton’s death broke and, like so many other fans, he attended the impromptu Chilton tribute that unfolded in Austin in the days that followed; and we also hosted our own little Big Star tribute concert a few years later, also in Austin at SXSW, at our annual day party, wherein Stephens, Stringfellow and Auer, along with several guest players and singers, did a set of the music we all love so deeply. Even more recently, our photographer Sadie Claire attended the special Third concert at the 2017 SXSW; you can view her photo gallery from the festival, including numerous BST shots, here.
As Stephens told Rolling Stone not long after Chilton died, “I can’t see us going out [now] as Big Star… But I would hate to compound the loss of Alex by saying, ‘That’s it’ for Ken and Jon, too. I can’t imagine not playing with them. There’s so much fun—but an emotional bond there too.”
And for us too, Jody. It’s been a long—though not unwarranted—grieving period, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I teared up again multiple times while watching the concert film. Now, though, let’s celebrate. —Fred Mills, BLURT Editor
Thank You, Friends: The CDs. You’d be hard pressed to find a band more beloved by fellow musicians and music writers while being wildly underrated by the record-buying public, than Memphis-based power pop band Big Star.
With a name that is savagely ironic, seeing as how none of their albums ever sold well on initial release—their debut was even called #1 Record!—and with the deaths of frontman Alex Chilton, guitarist Chris Bell and bassist Andy Hummel, drummer Jody Stephens is the only surviving founding member. In the decades since their three-record lifecycle from ’72-to-’78, the band has grown immensely in reputation, managing to become desert island album must-haves to many who now namecheck the band.
Given their place on the Mount Rushmore for fellow talented artists, Thank You, Friends come off more as a genuinely impressive love note to a favorite band rather than a cynical cash grab.
This two-CD set accompanying the concert documentary DVD includes a slew of Big Star fans, like members of Yo La Tengo, Wilco, R.E.M., Semisonic, the dB’s (notably Chris Stamey, the impetus behind the project) and Let’s Active, not to mention Robyn Hitchcock, joining Stephens on stage for an April 2016 show in Glendale, California, highlighting the band’s album Third/Sister Lovers. There are also some fantastic newcomers on the stage, like North Carolina’s Brett Harris and Skylar Gudasz, among others. The set also includes a handful of covers from the band’s first two records, like a beautiful take on “In the Street” and “September Gurls.” (Interestingly, the track sequence for the audio portion of the DVD/2CD package is a good bit different than the video, and it also includes “Back of a Car,” which does not appear on the DVD.)
Big Star may never have truly got the respect they deserved with the first go around, but Thank You, Friends is helping to right a few wrongs by bringing Big Star’s music to a broader audience. —John B. Moore, BLURT Senior Editor and Blogger
Thank You, Friends: The DVD. Though Big Star’s Third Live is no stranger to stages around the country, it’s still not a project seen by a whole lot of people. Thus the DVD portion of Thank You Friends affords many of us the first chance to see this mini-orchestra in action. And the band does not disappoint. No matter who is at the mic, whether relatively big stars (no pun intended) like R.E.M.’s Mike Mills and Robyn Hitchcock, cult favorites like the Old Ceremony’s Django Haskins and bandleaders Chris Stamey and Mitch Easter, or up-and-comers like Brett Harris and Skyler Gudasz, everyone lets their love of the material shine through.
There’s no doubt how much the music of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell means to them—it’s right there on each and every face. Singer/songwriter Dan Wilson—late of Semisonic and probably the wealthiest person on the stage, thanks to co-writing Adele’s “Someone Like You”—seems particularly moved to be there, putting aside fame and fortune to pay beautiful tribute with “Give Me Another Chance” and “The Ballad of El Goodo.” Even Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who surprisingly looks like he’s out of his depth, still manages to inject, if not passion, as least conviction into “Kizza Me” and “When My Baby’s Beside Me.”
But some of the less well-known names are responsible for the best performances. Mills may have gotten “September Gurls,” surely Big Star’s most famous song, but Gudasz delivers an absolutely lovely “Thirteen,” while Haskins brings the perfect amount of tension to the intense “Holocaust.” Harris, whose old-fashioned singer/songwriter pop springs directly from the Big Star legacy, handles “Kanga Roo” with a perfect balance of passion and vulnerability, looking like he might explode at any moment, but never actually doing it. Gudasz and Harris also serve as utility players, providing extra instruments and a ton of harmony vocals alongside nearly everyone else. Continuity with the Chilton era comes from Posies Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, who served in the revived Big Star in the ‘90s and ‘aughts, and original drummer Jody Stephens, who takes his turns in the spotlight (“Blue Moon” and “For You”) but otherwise stays with his drum kit, keeping perfect time on these songs he knows better than anyone.
With backdrops and lighting cues kept minimalist, the focus is purely on the performances, and that’s as it should be. Chilton and his band weren’t big on production numbers, and neither is this ensemble. So it’s only appropriate that, a few frankly inconsequential interviews aside, director Benno Nelson concentrates on capturing the music as it happens. No filter, no effects, nothing between the audience and this timeless rock music. —Michael Toland, BLURT Senior Editor & Blogger
Below, watch the official film trailer.