Various Artists: Thank You Friends – Big Star’s Third Live… And More

A celebration of Alex Chilton and Big Star

Although Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens revived Big Star in 1993 with the help of the Posies’ Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, they never sought to recreate the full majesty of their seminal studio recordings. The 2.0 lineup lasted nearly 18 years of intermittent live performances and the studio album In Space, but with Chilton’s passing in 2010, Big Star morphed from a going concern into a well spring of reissues, archival releases, biographies, documentaries and tribute performances. The first of the tributes took place within days of Chilton’s passing, as Big Star’s remaining three members were joined by the band’s friends and colleagues to deliver a musical wake at SXSW.

By the end of that year, a more formal tribute was organized with a live performance of Big Star’s Third, complete with the album’s full, original orchestration. And from that show, a core musical collective formed to tour the tribute internationally, engaging guest musicians and orchestras at each stop. A full rendering of Third remains the centerpiece of the show, but with the addition of material from Big Star’s first two albums and Chris Bell’s post-Big Star work to fill out the story. This 2017 performance features Big Star’s Jody Stephens and musical director Chris Stamey alongside Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer (The Posies, Big Star), Mike Mills (R.E.M.), Jeff Tweedy and Pat Sansone (Wilco), Ira Kaplan (Yo La Tango), Robyn Hitchcock, Benmont Tench (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers), Dan Wilson (Semisonic), and a full chamber orchestra.

Paying tribute to a band as beloved as Big Star is a tricky proposition. Covering too closely offers nothing new or of yourself, while straying too far risks losing touch with the object of your tribute. Add to that a small catalog that allows for talmudic-like study by fans and the stretch from single song cover to a full concert and album reading, and the balance point seems to grow more elusive. As musical director, Stamey has plotted out musical waypoints that anchor these covers to the familiar originals, while at the same time employing vocalists and harmony singers whose tone and style are reverent, yet fresh. The combination of familiar and new renews the chestnuts that had fossilized into icons, and animates the songs that were never performed live by the original band.

The performers’ deep affection for the material is evident throughout, and the split between earlier material on disc one and Third on disc two mirrors the changes in the band’s personnel, circumstances and resulting direction. The song sequence for Third has long been debated, and the order selected here doesn’t seem to match any of the well-known sequences; i.e., the 1975 test pressing on Stax, the 1978 vinyl issue on PVC, the 1992 CD issue on Ryko, the 2016 Complete Third on Omnivore, or any of the many reissues in between; notably missing are the test pressing’s covers of “Femme Fatale” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” and reissue inclusions “Till the End of the Day” and “Nature Boy.” Still, no matter the track selection or order, the musical schizophrenia of the original sessions comes across in both the individual songs, and the idiosyncratic range of material.

Third was such a personal, one-of-a-kind document of an artist in a particular period of his life, that a staged tribute is necessarily removed from the circumstances under which the album was created. The performers rely on the personal resonances the music strikes in themselves and the audience, and connect with the material on musical, lyrical and emotional levels. Jessica Pratt and Jon Auer capture the somnambulistic late night of “Big Black Car,” Skylar Guasz and Mike Mills rock “You Can’t Have Me,” and Jody Stephens’ shines with fragile hope on string-backed performances of “For You” and “Blue Moon.” The personal and professional disintegration that Chilton captured on Third couldn’t possibly be reproduced with full emotional fidelity in a tribute, but as an homage and an echo of Chilton’s miasma, this is a fulfilling production. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

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