Live Review: Big Star

by Mitch Goldman

Roxy theatre, Atlanta, GA 2/7/96

Alex Chilton is more than just an alternative rock legend (though his status assame is surely cemented by the Replacements' song named after him); he's still an enigmatic yet vital figure in the world of modern pop. His early success as a Memphis soul singer (remember the Box Tops' "The Letter"?) was followed by his seminal work with the late Chris Bell and Big Star; the two Big Star lp's (the third, entitled THIRD is really more of a Chilton solo project released under theBig Star name) are perhaps the real start of "alternative" pop. #1 RECORD,released in '72, single-handedly set the tone for 80's bands like R.E.M., The Replacements, and Soul Asylum. The follow up (made after co-leader Chris Bell split the band) Radio City is a masterpiece of pre-punk pop...from the irresitible riffing of "O My Soul" to the Westerberg-anticipating "September Gurls" (played so much by the 'Mats in the 80's that many think Paul wrote it!),Radio City sets the stage for what we called "power pop" back in 1980. It's safe to say that there'd be no "alternative" music, as we know it, without Chilton's contributions.

All the more puzzling then that Alex spent two decades after the breakup of Big Star attempting to distance himself from that legacy. Refusing to play the Big Star tunes in his solo shows, recording indifferent, rambling records, and giving sometimes incoherent and mumbled performances did little to bolster his stature in mainstream music (but furthered the enigmatic legend that Chilton had becomeby the beginning of the 80's). But back in 1993, Alex and original drummer Jody Stephens reunited for a one-off Big Star show at the University of Missouri (at which they recorded a fine live record, Columbia). Rounding out the band were Posies guitarist Jon Auer and Posies bassist Ken Stringfellow; their lead and backing vocals helped breathe new life into Big Star classics, and this line-up has done an additional handful of shows since last year.

Their recent performance in Atlanta was a rare treat, both from the unusual opportunity to hear these songs played live, and from the standpoint of being able to see Chilton totally coherent and totally in command of his powers. And his powers as both a singer and a guitarist are awesome indeed ... his playing was melodic and strong, his voice was great, and he cut a romantic figure on stage, with a smoldering cigarette dangling from his lip as he ripped through some of the most beloved guitar melodies of our generation. From the opening "In the Street" to the closing "Patty Girl," Alex and the band nailed the gorgeous harmonies and pulsing rock that defines the charm of Big Star. And this version of the band is far from Alex's show...drummer Jody Stephens sang lead on his own composition "For You" (from BIG STAR THIRD) and on original bass player Andy Hummel's Radio City tune "Way Out West" (I got chills hearing Alexand Jody harmonize on the chorus line "why don't you come on back/from way out west?"). Posie Jon Auer did a breathtaking lead vocal on the touching "I Am the Cosmos" (a Chris Bell solo single that Alex produced back in the mid 70's); Ken Stringfellow did his finest young Alex impression during his lead vocal on "Feel"(the very first song on #1 Record) and also turned in a beautiful vocal on the nearly impossible-to-sing "Daisy Glaze." Big Star also played some covers, like "Til the End of the Day" (the old Kinks tune, covered on BigStar Third) and the old Todd Rundgren chestnut "Slut" (with a great audience singalong during the "S! L! U! T!" chorus line).

And of course the Big Star classics sounded as thrilling as they did during the bad old 70's..."September Gurls" is still the best power pop tune ever written;"Don't Lie To Me" rocked harder than on record, as did "When My Baby's BesideMe"; "The Ballad of El Goodo" is especially appropriate for post-solo career Chilton (the chorus lyrics "there ain't no one gonna turn me around" seem to fit Alex's last ten years particularly well); and Jody Stephen's "For You" was touching and real, with Stephen's vocal achieving sentimentality without being cloying.

Sure, I could gripe a bit about the setlist...no "Thank You Friends", no "Thirteen", and most disappointing, no "O My Soul", the killer opening tune from Radio City (Auer began the "Soul" riff at one point, followed by a rabid fan yelling "O my soullllll!!" Chilton smiled and said "nah, we're not feeling that hearty tonight!"). But seeing Alex in command of his justly legendary performing powers was a rare treat, and we may not see the likes of Big Star again in our lifetimes. If these intrepid gentlemen grace any stages near you, don't think twice ... run and bask in the melodic glow of Big Star.

Setlist (10:01-11:10):

In The Street Don't Lie To Me
When My Baby's Beside Me
I Am the Cosmos
Way Out West
Til the End of the Day
The Ballad of El Goodo
Never Gonna Find me a Girl
Back of a Car
Daisy Glaze
For You Baby
Strange Feel
September Gurls
Slut

Encores:

My Baby Only Cares for Me Patty Girl


Copyright 1996
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