The 2010 South by Southwest conference was supposed to be a victory lap of sorts for Alex Chilton. The seminal power pop band he founded, Big Star, was being celebrated, both with a panel about the group and a high-profile concert at Antone’s with original drummer Jody Stephens and the Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies – the lineup that had been used for their occasional reunions.
Unfortunately, Chilton died of a heart attack just as SXSW was about to begin, and the concert turned into a memorial for him, with an assortment of musicians filling in for him on short notice. Since then, some of the performers from that night have intermittently gotten together to perform Third in its entirety in different cities with a variety of guest musicians (the videos embedded are from a show in London in May 2012). On June 28, they found themselves at Chicago’s Park West venue.
Joining Stephens and Stringfellow were Chris Stamey of the dBs and power pop guru Mitch Easter on guitars and a mini-orchestra that worked mostly off the original Carl Marsh arrangements. It would have been easier and cheaper to throw all those sounds into a keyboard, but live strings and woodwinds gave the music the importance it deserves.
By the way, if you haven’t yet read Will Harris’ excellent interview with Stephens, do so here.
In 1974, after Big Star’s brilliant first two albums tanked, Chilton and Stephens, by now the two remaining members, began recording at their base, Memphis’ Ardent Studios, with Jim Dickinson and a host of local musicians. The songs Chilton brought were a reflection of his state of mind at the time: tortured, dissolute, and haunting, and the sessions broke down. It was eventually salvaged and released in 1978 to little fanfare, and subsequent reissues, some of which have used the alternate tile Sister Lovers, have had different track listings and sequences. The 1992 Rykodisc version brought Dickinson into the picture to present it as close to the band’s original intentions as possible.
But even with a “definitive” version on the shelves for more than 20 years, the musicians chose a different order. Django Haskins (the Old Ceremony) kicked things off with “Nature Boy,” the Nat “King” Cole song that was a bonus track on the Ryko release. Haskins, who served as the emcee for the evening, then brought out the other musicians, and Stringfellow took the lead on “Kizza Me.”
The act of even trying to perform Third is a daunting task. There are off-kilter harmonies, delayed snare shots, and plenty of moments where, as Haskins put it so eloquently, “shit gets weird.” And yet, they managed to pull it off with aplomb. Easter stood behind the singers, throwing out lead guitar lines with the ease of a master, and Stamey provided versatile rhythm work and kept the energy level high.
After Stephens got out from behind the kit for his own “For You,” the special guests, most of whom were local, came out. Mekon and Chicago alt-country mainstay Sally Timms delivered a beautiful “Nightime,” Josh Caterer (Smoking Popes) was called on for “Jesus Christ” and “Big Black Car,” with Tim Rutili of Califone singing “Take Care” in between. Urge Overkill’s Ed Roeser delivered the seemingly unperformable “Downs,” with Stringfellow bouncing a basketball on stage to replicate the original. Gary Louris of the Jayhawks came down from Minnesota to put his careening tenor on “Dream Lover.”
But as impressive as the big names were, Haskins and two other North Carolina musicians – Brett Harris and Skylar Gudasz – stole the show. Relegated mostly to background vocals, with Harris and Gudasz sharing a mic on “la la” duty throughout, they also sang their share of leads. Gudasz also played flute and opened the show with three of her own lovely songs. I’ll definitely be checking out their solo work in the very near future.
That’s not to say there weren’t flaws. Some songs sounded under-rehearsed, with several false starts, and confusion due to the rotating cast of musicians occasionally slowed down the pace. During “Blue Moon,” Stephens was seemingly so caught up in the string arrangement that he missed his entrance. And yet, because the night was about Big Star, the mistakes seemed apt. As Stephens joked after the show, the combination of focused and unfocused moments reminded him of the sessions for Third.
Following the everybody-sings-a-line version of “Thank You Friends,” the second half of the two-hour show was devoted to the rest of the Big Star catalog. Amy Speace did a lovely “Try Again” and Louris returned for “I’m In Love With A Girl.” Harris brought the memory of founding member Chris Bell to the fore with “You And Your Sister,” which was followed by a gorgeous “Thirteen” by Gudasz, which was about as perfect a sequence as you could imagine.
Then the band return to slam home such classics as “Feel,” “In The Street,” and “Back Of Car,” with Louris doing a jaw-dropping take on “Give Me Another Chance.” That was followed by everybody joining in on “September Gurls,” which they called their “national anthem,” and “The Letter,” Chilton’s 1967 hit with the Box Tops, with Roeser doing his best to recreate Chilton’s gruff, soulful voice.
“Nature Boy” (Django Haskins)
“Kizza Me” (Ken Stringfellow)
“O Dana” (Skylar Gudasz)
“For You” (Jody Stephens)
“Nightime” (Sally Timms)
“Jesus Christ” (Josh Caterer)
“Take Care” (Tim Rutili)
“Big Black Car” (Caterer)
“Stroke It Noel” (Stringfellow?)
“Blue Moon” (Stephens)
“Femme Fatale” (Brett Harris)
“Downs” (Ed Roeser)
“Dream Lover” (Gary Louris)
“You Can’t Have Me” (Stamey?)
“Kanga Roo” (Harris)
“Thank You Friends” (Ensemble)
“Try Again” (Amy Speace)
“I’m In Love With A Girl” (Louris)
“You and Your Sister” (Harris)
“In the Street” (Caterer)
“Back of a Car” (Stamey)
“There Was a Light” (Stringfellow)
“When My Baby’s Beside Me” (Harris?)
“I Am The Cosmos” (Louris)
“Morpha Too” (Gudasz)
“Give Me Another Chance” (Louris)
“September Gurls” (Ensemble)
“The Letter” (Roeser)