Big Star – Live in Memphis

big star live in memphis lp omnivore recordings 2014

The story of Memphis’ BIG STAR is a tragic and ultimately triumphant one – a group that managed to conjure transcendent rock music in the face of bad distribution deals and commercial indifference. The story of Big Star’s rise from obscurity to posthumous cult fame is a tale that’s now oft been told. For the uninitiated, 2012’s documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me is an excellent place to start (add it to your Netflix queue, if you haven’t already).

The group began as a quartet with the Beatles worshiping Chris Bell and mercurial former teen pop star Alex Chilton at its songwriting core, whilst the ably talented Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens provided the rhythm and heart (along with a couple writing contributions of their own). The group shed bandmates like a lunar bound rocket as the failures piled up and morale eroded. Despite producing a duo of albums (#1 Record and Radio City) that would be considered massively influential on future generations of musicians, fame and fortune had passed them by. By the time the third album was being recorded, only the duo of Chilton and Stephens remained. They ended up recording some of the most beautifully damaged songs ever recorded to tape. It was an album that fused chamber pop with raucous feedback. It was the sound of a band falling apart and the soundtrack to Alex Chilton’s upside down life; it was a beautiful decay. The initial test press of the third LP shopped around in hopes of getting a deal were for naught, as it made record executives very uncomfortable. Big Star’s initial tale ended with the final album sessions being shelved until 1978. The sessions would eventually be released as Big Star’s 3rd or Sister Lovers, depending on who you asked. It would take a while, but eventually word of the band got out through word of mouth and in some cases, dubbed cassette copies of their albums.

Twenty years on from the artistic supernova that was the groups’ swan song, comes this recently unearthed reunion gig recorded in the groups’ hometown. Big Star: Live in Memphis catches the then newly reconstituted group at a high point. Following the dissolution of the first incarnation of the group, front man Alex Chilton had wasted little time moving forward into areas beyond the pristine power pop of his former group and dived headlong into art damage, producing punk bands he loved like the Cramps, dishing up greasy lounge-styled covers of standards like Volare, and doing whatever the hell he wanted so long as it was a million miles away from what he had previously done with Big Star. It accordingly shocked just about everyone when on April 25, 1993, in Columbia, Missouri, the group known as Big Star began a second life of sorts by grafting the 3rd era duo of Stephens and Chilton with the Posies, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow. Filmed by one of Chilton’s Big Star era body guards, Danny Graflund, the set provides a neat companion to the other Big Star reunion album Columbia: Live at Missouri University 4/25/93 and also the more recently released live acoustic Chilton solo set Electricity by Candlelight: NYC 2/13/97.

With a few more gigs under their belt, Live in Memphis shows the reformed act on much more assured footing than the previously released Columbia set. Adding to that the fact that the set was recorded on the band’s home turf, and you’ve got a pretty magical performance captured on tape. The set covers a great range of material from the band’s first three records and gives each member of the group plenty of time to shine. The freshly picked Posies sound best when paying homage to the departed Chris Bell, especially on their cover of his signature song, “I Am the Cosmos.” Drummer Jody Stephens provides an excellent rhythmic anchor to the proceedings in addition to providing some stellar vocals on “For You,” and “Way out West.” Even Chilton seems pretty engaged and gives a hell of a performance, given that the man could be fairly hit or miss as far as his enthusiasm for all things Big Star went following the groups initial dissolution. In later years, Chilton seemed to fashion himself as more of an interpreter of songs than a writer himself, often dismissing the Big Star material he’d written as nebulous strings of words and spending most of his solo years filling his sporadic solo albums with mostly cover tunes.

He definitely gets a few of those he loved so dearly into the Big Star set with his covers of “The Girl from Ipanema” and his tackling of Gary and The Hornets’ “Patty Girl.” He even hangs back on brilliant originals like “Daisy Glaze,” leaving them for the new recruits to sing. While enthusiastically tackling non-original songs he covered even in the Big Star era such as The Kinks’ “’Til The End of the Day,” T Rex’s “Baby Strange,” and Todd Rundgren’s very sleazy “S.L.U.T.” Overall, while for a Big Star enthusiast like myself this is a great collection of the reunion act at the height of their powers; the uninitiated would be better served by snapping up the recent reissues of the groups’ first two albums. However, for those who are already in the cult, this a great collection of tunes from an almost impossibly reformed band; sharing music with family and friends for an all too brief moment in time, now displaced. It’s a beautiful and rare thing.

Genre/ Tags: Alternative, Pop, Live
Live in Memphis: Tracklist:
1.) In The Street
2.) Don’t Lie to Me
3.) When My Baby’s Beside Me
4.) I Am the Cosmos
5.) Way Out West
6.) Till the End of the Day
7.) The Ballad of El Goodo
8.) Back of a Car
9.) Fire
10.) Daisy Glaze
11.) For You
12.) Baby Strange
13.) Feel
14.) September Gurls
15.) Big Black Car
16.) Thank You Friends
17.) The Girl from Ipanema
18.) Patty Girl
19.) Slut

BUY the 2xLP from Omnivore Records now !
Big Star on Discogs

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