There was on amazing concert honoring the band Big Star on Wednesday, April 27, 2016 at the Alex Theatre in Glendale, CA. I’m not using that word amazing lightly either. With stellar musical arrangements, a group of talented musicians dedicated to playing the music of Big Star live, along with special guest artists and the Kronos Quartet, took the audience on a exquisite journey through the album of Third/Sister Lovers along with favorite tunes from the Big Star catalog. The concert was filmed by Yes Equals Yes and will be available to purchase as a DVD next spring.
Time and life constraints have kept me from writing about this show earlier, but I wanted to make sure that I documented my favorite parts personally, even if belatedly. Craig Rosen did an excellent job reviewing this show for Billboard, so check that out if you are interested in additional details. I have been fortunate enough to see a version of this show before, when it played at the Wilshire Abell Theatre in September 2014. They also played through all of Number 1 Record that time, which I was psyched about as I had been playing that album a lot then, but had only recently become a fan. Now that I’ve been listening to Big Star’s music for a couple more years, it was a great chance to hear these songs with a more familiar ear. The presentation of the music has gotten more finely polished during the intervening time.
Pat Sansone of Wilco kicked off the show on acoustic guitar singing “I’m in Love With a Girl” as audience members were still finding their seats in the sold out theatre. (Please note all links to original versions of the songs played during this concert are in the full set list at the end of the post.) As the songs progressed, more musicians showed up on stage. Early on, expert songwriter and Semisonic frontman Dan Wilson effectively sang a spot-on rendition of one of my favorites, “The Ballad of El Goodo.” Then there were two rockers in a row with original Big Star member Jody Stephens showing off his stuff on drums. First, Jeff Tweedy of Wilco had us rocking out to “When My Baby’s Beside Me.” Ken Stringfellow of The Posies sang a powerful version of “Feel,” with Heartbreaker and Largo-regular Benmont Tench joining in on organ. In my notebook, next to this song I simply wrote, “awesome.” I’m a sucker for the song “Thirteen,” having learned to play it on guitar myself, so it was satisfying to hear Skylar Gudasz lend her pretty voice to the tune as Django Haskins provided support. Dan Wilson got to sing another of my favorites from Number 1 Record, the touching and poignant “Don’t Give Up On Me Yet.” This concluded the first set of songs and there was an intermission here.
Django Haskins kicked off the next section of music singing “Nature Boy,” a cover of the enchanting song by eden ahbez originally made famous by Nat King Cole, setting the stage for the next half of the evening, as if to say, “Something special is coming — pay attention.” Tweedy introduced “Kizza Me” by remarking, “Here’s another standard for you.” Jody Stephens took his turn on vocals to sing his song “For You,” which he sang in honor of 50 years of Ardent Studios, where Big Star got their start, and dedicated the song to Ardent founder, Jon Fry. Appreciation was also expressed for the string arrangements of Carl Marsh and it was noted that he had written new intros to some of the pieces, including “Nighttime,” which followed and was sung by Tweedy. A nice surprise addition to the show was Sarah Kramer playing a sweet trumpet solo at the end of “Big Black Car,” which was sung stunningly by Jessica Pratt.
My absolute favorite moment of the concert was Ken Stringfellow’s compelling vocal delivery of “Stroke It Noel.” He asked the question, “Do you wanna dance?” not as if he was asking for just a dance, but as if the whole rest of his life depended on the answer to that one simple question. So this song gets the honor of having its lyric as the title of the post. Vocalists take note, this is how you insert yourself into a song. Ken’s take on this song, as well as the fantastic band behind it, has to be in the running for one of my favorite performances of this year. This was the moment that made the extra long drive to get to the venue that night completely worth it. Yes I will spend an hour and 40 minutes in barely moving traffic if I can hear someone pour himself into a song in that manner. Thank you, Ken!
Another highlight for me was finally getting to see Robyn Hitchcock perform live. I’ve been waiting a long time to see Robyn on the stage, ever since he played at a 21 and up club very near to where I lived when I was 20 years and 11 months old. I wasn’t able to go see him because of the age limit (and my lack of fake ID and the fact that even today I get carded). What a treat to see him perfectly showcased with the oddball song, “Downs.” Robyn introduced the tune by saying, “If it works you’ll be amazed at how we did it, if not, you won’t be surprised.” Count me in on Team Amazed. On a side note, I’m excited to be able to go see Robyn perform his own show at Largo on June 5, 2016.
Well, “Holocaust” is clearly one of those incredible, well-written songs that takes your breath away. Django Haskins submitted a worthy rendition, with Peabody Southwell providing spine-tingling backing vocals. When Brett Harris took the lead vocals for “Kanga Roo” he pulled me into that song measure after measure, like he was pulling me up on a rope hand-over-hand while I was dangling from the side of a mountain. He along with the accompanying musicians provided a dynamic and gripping performance. “Thank You Friends” saw everybody who performed in the show return to the stage, taking turns singing lines from the song. They stated at the start of the concert that because the show was being filmed people didn’t really need to take photos or video, but a few people were and I took this moment to snap a shot myself, though I was seated further back than I would have liked for taking photographs. And as if I conjured him out of nowhere just by having thought about him during an earlier part of the show when I thought I saw someone who looked like him, Blake Mills, appeared on stage to play guitar for this song! As the song progressed, everyone slowly took turns exiting the stage during the song until there was just the piano playing at the end.
Brett Harris and Mike Mills (yeah, that guy from R.E.M.) sang “In the Street” and the whole crew rocked my socks off. At this point in the show, it was just one excellent moment coming fast on the heels of another. Jon Auer followed with a knockout version of Chris Bell‘s “I Am the Cosmos.” Then Mike Mills introduced “September Gurls” by saying it was one of his favorite songs of all times, “And I’m F-ing thrilled to be doing it.” It was an absolutely delicious, rock solid version of the song, delivered with such confidence you could be mistaken for thinking he had written it himself. It was a masterclass in delivering a cover song from a pro. Robyn was back on stage (along with a hair dryer, for effect, and wearing a different shirt) to sing “The Letter,” which Big Star member Alex Chilton had made famous when he was the vocalist for The Box Tops. It’s okay, Robyn, I like to sing with my hair dryer too. Mitch Easter deftly handled covering Big Star covering The Kinks on “Till the End of the Day,” while Blake Mills returned to play a nice guitar solo (and I don’t mean nice as in polite, I mean it emphatically, with a capital N and drawn out letter sounds). For an added bonus, the show closed out with Jody singing Andy Hummel‘s tune, “Way Out West.”
On a closing note, drummer Jody Stephens has a new album out with his new band Those Pretty Wrongs. Check it out. Here’s a link to the official video for their song “Never Goodbye.” Also, can I please look as young as Jody does when I’m in my early 60s?
The full set list from the concert was as follows:
- “I’m in Love with a Girl” from Radio City, sung by Pat Sansone
- “Watch the Sunrise” from Number 1 Record, sung by Brett Harris
- “Back of a Car” from Number 1 Record, sung by Jon Auer, Ken Stringfellow
- “The Ballad of El Goodo” from Number 1 Record, sung by Dan Wilson
- “When My Baby’s Besides Me” from Number 1 Record, sung by Jeff Tweedy
- “Feel” from Number 1 Record, sung by Ken Stringfellow
- “Thirteen” from Number 1 Record, sung by Skylar Gudasz, Django Haskins
- “The EMI Song” from Alex Chilton’s Free Again, sung by Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo
- “Give Me Another Chance” from Number 1 Record, sung by Dan Wilson (Followed by an intermission.)
- “Nature Boy” from Third/Sister Lovers, sung by Django Haskins
- “Kizza Me” from Third/Sister Lovers, sung by Jeff Tweedy
- “O Dana” from Third/Sister Lovers, sung by Jon Auer
- “For You” from Third/Sister Lovers, sung by Jody Stephens
- “Nightime” from Third/Sister Lovers, sung by Jeff Tweedy
- “Jesus Christ” from Third/Sister Lovers, sung by Mike Mills
- “Take Care” from Third/Sister Lovers, sung by Ira Kaplan
- “Big Black Car” from Third/Sister Lovers, Jessica Pratt
- “Stroke It Noel” from Third/Sister Lovers, sung by Ken Stringfellow
- “Blue Moon” from Third/Sister Lovers, sung by Jody Stephens, Tanner on bassoon
- “Femme Fatale” from Third/Sister Lovers (The Velvet Underground cover), sung by Jessica Pratt with Brett Harris and Chris Stamey
- “Downs” from Third/Sister Lovers, sung by Robyn Hitchcock
- “Dream Lover” from Third/Sister Lovers, sung by Ken Stringfellow, Skylar Gudasz
- “Holocaust” from Third/Sister Lovers, sung by Django Haskins, Peabody Southwell
- “You Can’t Have Me” from Third/Sister Lovers, sung by Mike Mills, Skylar Gudasz
- “Kangaroo” from Third/Sister Lovers, sung by Brett Harris
- “Thank You Friends” from Third/Sister Lovers, sung by just about everybody
- “You and Your Sister” from Chris Bell’s I Am the Cosmos, sung by Pat Sansone
- “In the Street” from Number 1 Record, sung by Mike Mills and Brett Harris
- “I Am the Cosmos” from Chris Bell’s I Am the Cosmos, sung by Jon Auer, Ken Stringfellow
- “September Gurls” from Radio City, sung by Mike Mills
- “The Letter” single by The Box Tops, sung by Robyn Hitchcock
- “Till the End of the Day” from Third/Sister Lovers, sung by Mitch Easter
- “Way Out West” from Radio City, sung by Jody Stephens