Big Star: Live on WLIR

Reissue of seminal 1974 live recording

With so much Big Star material having been issued and reissued over the past thirty years, it may be difficult to remember what a blinding light from the cosmos this live set was upon its original Rykodisc release in 1992. Fans had memorized every detail of the band’s slim album catalog and adjunct singles, and in those very early internet years, there was little else to know about the band. Even Alex Chilton’s reemergence in the late ‘70s had failed to shed much retroactive light on a band that had come and gone before most fans had even heard of them. Robert Gordon brilliantly described the sensation of hearing this live set for the first time in the liner notes of the original Rykodisc release:

“You find an old picture of your lover. It dates from before you’d met, and though you’d heard about this period in his or her life, seeing it adds a whole new dimension to the person who sits across from you at the breakfast table. You study the photograph and its wrinkles, looking for clues that might tell you more about this friend you know so well–can you see anything in the pockets of that jacket, can you read any book titles on the shelf in the background. You think about an archaeologist’s work. When you next see your lover, you’re struck by things you’d never noticed. The skin tone, the facial radiance–though the lamps in your house are all the same and the sun does not appear to be undergoing a supernova, he or she carries a different light. As strikingly similar as the way your lover has always appeared, he or she is also that different. You shrug and smile. Whatever has happened, you like it. That’s what this recording is about.”

It’s hard to imagine this album having the same sort of revelatory impact in a world now populated by multiple live sets, demos, rehearsals, alternate takes and mixes, a reformed band, new material and posthumous tributes; yet, it remains one of the preeminent artifacts of Big Star’s first run, and an essential element of the canon. Recorded at Hemstead, New York’s Ultrasonic Studios for broadcast on Long Island’s WLIR, the band shows off a three-piece lineup of Chilton, Jody Stephens, and Andy Hummel’s replacement on bass, John Lightman. The material is drawn from both #1 Record and the then-recently released Radio City, with the lion’s share from the latter. The performances are loose, with Chilton energized in both his singing and guitar playing – perhaps not yet realizing that Big Star’s commercial fortunes were about to flatline for a second time.

Chilton’s vocal on “You Get What You Deserve” and the extended jam of “She’s a Mover” free the songs from the amber of the studio albums, and a solo acoustic mini-set includes “The Ballad of El Goodo,” “Thirteen,” “I’m in Love With a Girl,” along with a cover of Loudon Wainwright’s “Motel Blues.” When first released, the disc stood on its own as a document of the band in action; it’s now complemented by an earlier live set captured on Live At Lafayette’s Music Room – Memphis, TN, and the rehearsals and live material found on Nobody Can Dance. Combined with the studio albums, the live performances fill out an arc that eventually extended to the reformed band’s coming out on Columbia: Live at Missouri University and Live in Memphis, as well as their latter-day studio album, In Space. Omnivore’s reissue includes new liners from Robert Gordon and a new interview with John Lightman. It also includes stage patter not found on Ryko’s original, and a louder remaster. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

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