BY FRED MILLS
Although no one would have predicted, back at the beginning of the second Big Star revival kickstarted by a 1993 reunion concert (the first can be traced to the early ‘80s when such fans as R.E.M.’s Pete Buck, the dB’s Chris Stamey and the Replacements’ Paul Westerberg regularly namechecked the band in interviews), that one day we’d have a small shelf full of posthumous Big Star albums, such an eventuality has indeed come to pass. Live in Memphis, issued to mark the 20th anniversary of the Oct. 29, 1994, Big Star concert at Memphis’ New Daisy Theatre, joins such previously-released concert gems as 1992’s Big Star Live, which documented a 1974 live radio broadcast; 1999’s Nobody Can Dance, collecting more ’74 performances; and of course 1993’s Columbia, a recording of the aforementioned reunion that unveiled a new lineup of Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens plus newcomers Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer of the Posies. (There are also a number of good-quality bootlegs in circulation that contain stray live cuts, including 1997’s must-own Beale Street Green.)
It’s quite a gift to fans, too. Live in Memphis—which has a corresponding DVD available separately—finds Chilton, particularly, in good voice, his obvious playfulness all the more engaging given that he’s performing before a hometown crowd, the first such Memphis appearance since the reunion. Presumably all involved must have felt more than a little pressure, yet Stephens, in his liner notes to the album, suggests that any pressure was quickly replaced by adrenaline and endorphin rushes when they stepped onstage:
“So much support from well-wishers, which included [Ardent Studio’s] John Fry and my parents. That night in Memphis… was an incredibly good time and a bit of magic. It wasn’t so much that we were playing to the audience—we were sharing the music with them, and they were sharing themselves with us. We all cared.”
It shows, in spades. With Chilton cajoling and encouraging his bandmates, flat-out rockers like opening number “In the Street” and “When My Baby’s Beside Me” have an uncommon punchiness, while serene pop like “Jesus Christ” and signature anthem “September Gurls” contain a palpable sense of yearning. Tunes from all three seventies albums are performed, not to mention an unexpected rendition of the late Chris Bell’s solo gem “I Am the Cosmos” sung by Auer. And the inclusion of several well-chosen covers—among them, solid takes on the Kinks (“Till the End of the Day”), T. Rex (“Baby Strange”) and Todd Rundgren (“Slut”) plus a brief, off-the-cuff version of Jobim’s “The Girl From Ipanema” which Chilton had been known to do at his solo shows and a jokey snatch of Springsteen’s “Fire”—underscores the party vibe that suffuses the evening.
It’s worth noting that as the show was being caught on camera for a proposed concert documentary (quite nicely, by the way, by filmmaker Danny Graflund), it’s likely that thoughts of an actual audio release were secondary at the time; while a decent recording, Live in Memphis isn’t on sonic par with, say, the Allman Brothers’ At Fillmore East. At any rate, upon shopping the material around in ‘94 Graflund had no takers, so he wound up tucking the master tapes away in his closet. Then a couple of years ago a fellow Memphis documentarian working on a Chilton film, David Leonard, approached Graflund about seeing his tapes. “We all thought it looked pretty good,” writes Graflund in his liner notes, “and now that three-fourths of the [original] band members were dead, the music industry was catching up to Big Star.”
We lost Chilton in early 2010, with original bassist Andy Hummel following him a few months later; Bell had passed away in ’78. Live in Memphis, then, makes for a fitting tribute not just to Chilton and the latterday incarnation of Big Star, but to all the members—musicians who brought a lot of joy to the music world and continue to wield an enormous influence upon fresh generations of fans.
DOWNLOAD: “When My Baby’s Beside Me,” “I Am the Cosmos,” “Till the End of the Day”