Dear God, this is amazing. Not because it’s Big Star – let’s make one thing clear from the outset: I don’t like live albums as a rule of thumb; I never have. Among the host of reasons, bands always sound out of tune; play too fast; the sound is never on par with the recorded versions, but mostly because live albums always take away the joy of seeing a band. I never liked having concerts replicated in my living room.
However, now that I’m older, I do make exceptions. And yes, because this is Big Star, I’ll make a concession – granted, I didn’t think much of the live album Ryko put out in the early ’90’s. But this… this is something special. Start with the fact that this gig was performed BEFORE the now-famous appearance for the Rock Writer’s Convention (held in the same room four months later); this live show has the Chilton/Stephens/Hummel line-up working out in a performance setting the songs that would become the legendary Radio City album a year later. It is important to note that this set was first issued as disc 4 of the Keep An Eye On The Sky boxed set, but now, Live At Lafayette’s Music Room is available as a stand-alone release. The sound quality is stunning – you really feel like you’re in that room, watching this powerhouse trio – kudos must go to Adam Hill and Michael Graves for the work done to give it this clarity and richness.
Opening with an inspired and joyful “When My Baby’s Beside Me”, they go into “My Life Is Right”, which is beautifully delivered by Chilton in the absence of Chris Bell, who had quit by this time and had originally sung lead. Unlike the later studio version, “She’s A Mover” is performed here by Big Star – the way it, frankly, should have been done (neither Jody Stephens or Andy Hummel were on the recorded track) and is shit-hot. “Way Out West”, “…El Goodo” and “In The Street” are also dead on, considering the band were minus a second guitar. “Back Of A Car” explodes and “Thirteen” is sweet and touching; inducing chills with the harmonies. “The India Song” is another breezy and happy moment, countered next by Chilton taking Bell’s spot as vocalist on “Try Again”. This version has a certain emotional warmth and a sense of hope, which contrasts with the pain conveyed in Bell’s original studio reading and the subtlety of the harmonies cannot be understated and Chilton’s simple slide guitar work is exquisite.
“Watch The Sunrise”, while being mired in audience noise, still manages to put across its infectious, positive message and “Don’t Lie To Me” has the same big, ballsy sound, even with the band as trio, as it did on #1 Record while it becomes a heavy, boogie jam (!). I’ve heard a couple of renditions of Big Star doing “Hot Burrito #2”, but this is easily the best of them – however, the real treasure of this whole collection comes next. Later recorded by Chris Bell (and released after his death), “I Got Kinda Lost” was one of the songs that Big Star were working on as one of the possibilities for a second album when Bell left; aside from a not-great-quality “rehearsal” version, here is the band actually doing it and doing with a great deal of fluidity and I hate doing the “what if”‘s but there you go… And if that wasn’t enough, this live set also has a band version of another Bell track that would be recorded by the late guitarist, the heart-rending “There Was A Light” (there’s a demo version, but this takes the song to another level). Staples of the Big Star live set, even into the future, T. Rex’s “Baby Strange”, The Kinks’ “Come On Now” and Todd Rundgren’s “Slut” are here – and again, sound better than the later editions I’ve heard. The texture of “ST 100/6”, with Chilton’s very nuanced guitar and a very different additional verse/rearrangement, is a standout and the set closes with what would become the opener for Radio City, “O My Soul” – the band’s ultimate groove and most “Memphis” track. You can hear this live version was ready to be birthed not too long after.
There are no lulls; no lackluster moments in this show. For a band that was not known to have performed all too often in those original years, they certainly had and brought the goods. Chilton was truly a dynamic singer and at moments, an unbelievable guitarist. Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens were a water-tight rhythm section that played with power, timing and a lot of soul in what they were doing. And to be able to capture that in a recorded live set is both a miracle and a blessing. This album is, quite simply, a vital and critical document of musical history. And for that I am grateful.
This wonderful release is available on compact disc, a two-record set or download. It should be noted, when you purchase the physical versions, you’ll find a download code for an interview with Alex Chilton and Andy Hummel, recorded during the summer of 1972, which you will not want to miss.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED – ESSENTIAL LISTENING
Live At Lafayette’s Music Room is currently available