An all star lineup pays homage to a fractured masterpiece.
Back in 2010, several North Carolina musicians got together in the wake of Alex Chilton’s passing, to heal the best way they knew how – by creating music together. They chose to perform music from Chilton’s most difficult album, Big Star’s Third. Yet, the core musicians worked so well together, they decided to take the performance on the road. Thank You Friends – Big Star’s Third Live…and More is a DVD/CD set just issued from Concord-Bicycle music, which documents a star-studded show from the ironically named Alex Theater in Glendale, California from 2016.
This is hallowed territory to be sure, and musical director, Chris Stamey (who played with Chilton in a post-Big Star band), went to great lengths in arranging the material. He was able to obtain the original multi-track recordings, isolate each instrument, and learn how each part fit together. Make no mistake, this isn’t your typical all-star tribute album. The musicians really were able to dig into the essence of what made these songs so powerful in their original form, and project them in a live setting.
It’s obvious that every musician has the same goal: to celebrate this fantastic, emotional music. Not one time does anyone call attention to themselves outside of this music. There’s a reverence that permeates the entire show. Each performer gives just what each song needs – like Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy imparting a fragility to “Nighttime,” or Mike Mills’ celebratory take on “Jesus Christ” (who knew he had that gritty quality to his voice?). Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo is spot on for the brokenness of “Take Care.”
Original Third arranger Carl Marsh was enlisted to conduct some new string arrangements, which help make even the bleakest of tracks, a little more palatable. “Holocaust” and “Kang Roo,” arguably the darkest material, are given to lesser-known musicians from NC – Brett Harris tackles the former, while Django Haskins handles the latter. These two tracks, in particular, benefit from this live setting. The original recordings were full of paranoia and despair – here, they’re no less emotive, just in a different way. By keeping the arrangements sparse, the spirit of the original versions is kept in tact.
Holding everything together is Jody Stephens, the lone surviving Big Star member. Hearing his signature, monster drumming gives you a deeper appreciation of how much he meant to the Big Star catalog of tunes. Stephens also steps up to the mic for a gorgeous rendition of “For You.” The concert closes with the fitting “Thank You Friends.”
To fully appreciate Third, it’s good to have some context, and disc one is made up of live renditions of Big Star songs from their first two records. The Posies Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow do a killer version of “Back of a Car,” while Dan Wilson of Semisonic imparts honesty to “Give Me Another Chance.”
“September Gurls” is difficult to sing, but Mills is up to the challenge, while Skylar Gudaz switches the gender on the tender “Thirteen” – her reading is goose bump-worthy.
Things come full circle for Chris Stamey, who sings lead on “I Am The Cosmos,” a Chris Bell solo single he released on his Car Records label back in 1978.
There are several interview snippets on the DVD where the musicians share their love of this music and how they came to know it – Stamey rightfully calls it a “secret society.” There’s also great liner notes that put things into perspective featuring Anthony DeCurtis and Stamey himself.
Most “tribute shows” are microwaved affairs, thrown together as a cash-in for some record label. The reverential, dare I say spiritual, treatment of this material makes Thank You Friends: Big Star’s Third Live…and More! remarkable. —Tony Peters