Members of R.E.M., Wilco & More Pay Tribute to Big Star at Epic 'Third' Concert

Lindsey Byrnes
Big Star's "Third" performance at the Alex Theatre on April 27, 2016 in Glendale, Calif.

Album tribute concerts can often feel like a cash-grabbing marketing ploy designed to allow an artist to revisit a best-selling set in concert to ratchet up ticket sales. Wednesday night's all-star concert at the Alex Theatre in Glendale, Calf., billed as "Thank You, Friends: Big Star's Third and More" and following the 2010 death of frontman Alex Chilton, was nothing like that.

Although the event was promoted by Concord Bicycle Music -- which was recording the show for 2017 DVD/CD release -- the 1978 album in question never charted and the sheer number of players involved in staging the live production ensured that no one's getting rich from this endeavor. Clearly, this was a labor of love for a band that never got its due from the mainstream but is truly loved by those in the know.

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For those who don't know, Big Star was a quartet that sprung out of Memphis, Tennessee, fronted by Chilton, who first rose to fame as the teenage voice of The Box Tops' 1967 chart-topper "The Letter." During its original run, from 1971-74, the band recorded three critically acclaimed albums, but never cracked the charts. The first two were filled with bright power-pop and included such gems as "In the Street," which Cheap Trick covered for the theme of That '70s Show, and "September Gurls," which The Bangles recorded on their 1986 platinum-seller "Different Light." Big Star's Third, by contrast, is a dark and moody cult classic in which Chilton battled his inner-demons accompanied by distorted guitars, strings and off-kilter beats.

The Third concerts have been staged about a dozen times in various cities in the U.S. and abroad since 2010 with various all-star casts, but Wednesday's lineup may have been the best yet. Joining core members -- surviving original Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, musical director Chris Stamey, latter-day Big Star members Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the PosiesLet's Active's Mitch Easter and former R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills -- were Jeff Tweedy and Pat Sansone of WilcoSemisonic's Dan Wilson, Robyn Hitchcock, Benmont Tench from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tango, and The Kronos Quartet. Yet some of the night's finest moments came from lesser-known talents such as Django Haskins (who also severed as the night's MC), Skylar Gudasz, Brett Harris and Jessica Pratt.

Delivering on the "and more" in the title, the nearly three-hour show opened with songs from the first two Big Star albums: #1 Record and Radio City. After a brief intermission, the ensemble delved into the moody rollercoaster that is Third, and the evening wrapped with what could best be described as "bonus tracks" related to the Big Star legacy.

The show kicked off with Sansone solo on acoustic delivering the heart-on-the-sleeve ballad "I'm in Love With a Girl" before the ensemble eventually increased in numbers and intensity. The muscular-but-melodic "Back of a Car" reunited the three-quarters of the '90s version of Big Star with guitarist Auer and bassist Stringfellow on vocals, Stephens on drums and Easter adding a second guitar. The reflective "The Ballad of El Goodo" had Wilson joining the proceedings while Tweedy rocked "When My Baby's Beside Me." Lest anyone thought the Big Star appreciation society was limited to middle-aged (and beyond) men, the relatively young trio of Gudasz, Harris and Haskins perfectly captured the sweet, rebellious innocence of "Thirteen" with a truly touching acoustic performance. Kaplan took lead on the Chilton rarity "The EMI Song," and that was all before the main event.

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The running order of Big Star's Third, also known as Sister Lovers, has varied over the years, leaving musical director Stamey the liberty to mix it to his liking without losing its occasional dramatic mood swings. It's an album that is very much a late-night studio creation of beautiful chaos, capturing the sound of Chilton's relationship and psyche falling apart. The fact that this ensemble can re-create it live is nothing short of amazing.

Highlights included Stephens coming out from behind the kit to sing lead on two songs -- "For You," which he noted turned Chilton onto Carl Marsh's string arrangements included on much of the album, and "Blue Moon," which had him joined, front and center, by a bassoon player.

The album's more downbeat numbers carried the most weight, including Tweedy's take on the confessional "Nighttime," Pratt's stunning vocal on the Velvet Underground cover "Femme Fatale," Gudasz's and Stringfellow's "Dream Lover," Harris' "Kanga Roo," and Haskins' eerie "Holocaust," augmented by opera singer Peabody Southwell's ghostly backing vocals. As Mills noted following the latter song, "This is an album of peaks and valleys," before launching into the aggressive "You Can't Have Me."

Other standouts included Stringfelllow's expressive vocal on "Stroke It, Noel" and eccentric Hitchcock's reading of "Downs," which featured Mills bouncing a basketball and Kaplan singing through a rolled-up magazine for added effect. The "Third" portion wrapped with a rousing version of "Thank You, Friends," with various singers taking turns on lead vocals.

The bonus portion featured a nod to singer/guitarist Chris Bell, who left Big Star after #1 Record but achieved cult status on his own, following his 1978 death in a car crash, with his posthumous solo album, I Am the Cosmos. Auer sang lead on the title track, while Sandsone and Harris delivered "You and Your Sister." Mills returned to the mic for "September Gurls," thanking the ensemble for letting him sing "one of his favoring effing songs in the world," while Easter -- who played electric guitar along with Stamey's acoustic for most of the evening -- sang lead on a rocking take of The Kinks' "Till the End of the Day," which he noted "is a Big Star song" (since the band covered it during the recording of Third). Adding to the fun, Hitchcock returned for "The Letter," and used a blow dryer to re-create the song's jet-plane sound effect.

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Stephens, along with Luther Russell, his bandmate in the new combo Those Pretty Wrongs, closed out the evening with "Way Out West," by Big Star's late bassist Andy Hummel, whom he noted "introduced him to Chris Bell and changed my life." And, if we may be so bold, changed ours too.

Somewhere, Chilton was smiling -- or maybe smirking and dismissing all attention while playing a ramshackle version of "Volare."

Set list
"I'm in Love with a Girl"
"Watch the Sunrise"
"Back of a Car"
"The Ballad of El Goodo"
"When My Baby's Besides Me"
"Feel"
"Thirteen"
"The EMI Song"
"Give Me Another Chance"
(Intermission)
"Nature Boy"
"Kizza Me"
"O Dana"
"For You"
"Nighttime"
"Jesus Christ"
"Take Care"
"Big Black Car"
"Stroke It, Noel"
"Blue Moon"
"Femme Fatale"
"Downs"
"Dream Lover"
"Holocaust"
"You Can't Have Me"
"Kanga Roo"
"Thank You, Friends"
"You and Your Sister"
"In the Street"
"I Am the Cosmos"
"September Gurls"
"The Letter"
"Till the End of the Day"

Encore
"Way Out West"