Big Star’s Third and the ‘classic album’ show

Can you overcome “classic album fatigue”? The performers who played Big Star’s Third in Sydney last week gave it a good shot. Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival

“Alex Chilton’s dead!” exclaimed a friend of mine when I told him I was going to a concert devoted to a Big Star album at Sydney’s Enmore Theatre. It’s easy to see the line of reasoning: tickets are being sold to hear a “classic album”, in this case Big Star’s Third, released in 1978. Its main instigator is no longer with us: Alex Chilton, vocalist for the American rock band, died in 2010. And so some kind of fraud is being perpetuated and the result is likely to be of little interest or quality.

Classic album fatigue

There’s also a sense of fatigue in some quarters about the “classic album” tours that have proliferated over the last few years. Interestingly, these concerts are nearly always by groups from the independent sphere that never really broke through – Sonic Youth recently toured the 1988 album Daydream Nation, Died Pretty toured the 1992 album Doughboy Hollow in 2008 –– and in 2013, The Breeders toured the 1993 album The Last Splash and Television played 1977’s Marquee Moon.

We don’t see The Eagles playing Hotel California or Springsteen playing Born To Run. These mega-artists can fill a stadium easily. But for comparatively smaller artists, the classic album show seems to make it more likely that middle-aged inner-city types will fork out for tickets and book baby-sitters.

The Big Star tribute in full swing at Sydney’s Enmore Theatre. Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival

So what’s not to like about the classic album show?

First of all, it’s predictable. If a record has been cherished in your collection for 20 or 30 years, surely it takes all the fun out of a show to know the order in which the songs will be played.

Secondly, it’s a guarantee, by artists who were supposedly on a cutting edge of some sort back in their day, that they won’t trouble you with their recent material. It will be wall-to-wall music you know, honest!

To me, the litmus test of seeing a “heritage” act has always been the way they balance old and new material in a set to display ongoing inspiration as well as the ability to please a crowd. After the novelty of a couple of years of the surprise of that band playing that record, as a music fan it’s difficult not to feel manipulated by each announcement of a classic album show.

Third, an album-that-might-have-been

Big Star’s Third, recorded in 1974 but first issued in 1978, is one of those strange albums-that-might-have-been, released with several alternate track-listings.

Big Black Car, from Big Star’s Third.

At its core there are maybe ten great songs of Chilton’s (a pretty good average), and clustered randomly around them some sketchy covers and air-shots. Big Star’s first two albums, #1 Record and Radio City, now considered absolutely essential to rock’s canon, were virtually ignored upon release, and there was little reason to hope that a third album would do any better.

Co-founder Chris Bell left the band, disillusioned, after the first album and died in a car accident in 1978 having only managed to release one further single. Reports are that many of the sessions for Third were dishevelled, fuelled and hampered in equal measure by various intoxicants. The evidence is there in the grooves.

In other words, Third has a combination of ingredients that make it prime fodder for rock mythology. Big Star’s cultural cachet is second only to that of The Velvet Underground.

Bringing back power-pop

Power-pop is a much maligned term, and for good reason.

A lot of music that is described by the term is formulaic rubbish, a tilt at mid-1960s Beatles and Byrds and classic obscurities with predictable chord sequences and boy-girl lyrics. It’s a club that anyone worth their salt seems reluctant to join. Big Star, alongside Todd Rundgren, Badfinger, The Raspberries and others, “invented” the genre in the early 1970s with their big guitars and big harmonies.

Big Star managed to transcend the boundaries of power-pop that they helped to create with the soul and rhythm and blues influences that can be heard on their first two albums, but perhaps more importantly through the nightmarish soundscapes of Holocaust and Kangaroo from Third.

Third on stage

The core of the group for the Big Star’s Third show are power-pop royalty.

Jody Stephens, Big Star’s original drummer, was something of a gravitational centre to the show at Sydney’s Enmore Theatre last week, sweetly singing a handful of songs and graciously giving tribute and sharing anecdotes.

Jody Stephens onstage. Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival

Sharing the stage were musical director and guitarist Chris Stamey, guitarist Mitch Easter, and bassist Mike Mills (from The dB’s, Let’s Active and R.E.M. respectively), representatives of the early 1980s generation of groups that helped spread the word on Big Star. Ken Stringfellow, of The Posies, played in a recent incarnation of Big Star until Chilton’s death in 2010.

The lead vocal microphone was taken at times by not only all of these characters, but also Tim Rogers, Dave Faulkner, Chan Marshall (Cat Power), Kim Salmon, Kurt Vile and relative newcomers Skylar Gudasz and Brett Harris. Ensemble Offspring, under the direction of Roland Peelman, supplied the orchestral layers with their usual flair and professionalism.

Tim Rogers onstage. Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival

Aside from Marshall (intense and self-conscious) and Vile (casual and goofy) everyone sang and played with absolute commitment. It’s difficult not to descend to cliché – but there was a lot of love in the room.

The show took place in two halves of equal length. The first comprised Third. Crucially, as there are several sequences of the tracks that have been released, the order of songs was unpredictable, this aspect taken further by the variety of lead singers.

The second half comprised many of the best-loved songs from the first two Big Star albums, both sides of Bell’s timeless 1978 single I Am The Cosmos/You And Your Sister, and sundry others.

A wide variety of styles and moods was traversed in the concert, though one might say the prevailing moods were euphoria and melancholy, and it’s the possible simultaneity of these states that defines the best power pop. So there was the kick-arse rocking soul revue of Rogers on When My Baby’s Beside Me and the fragile lament of Marshall’s Nighttime; the playfulness of Faulkner’s take on the skittish Downs, and Stringfellow trumping both lead vocal and bass duties on the chiming, kaleidoscopic Daisy Glaze; Gudasz and Harris breaking hearts with their respective takes on Thirteen and You And Your Sister; Salmon steering us through the emotional storm of Holocaust.

Chan Marshall (Cat Power) onstage. Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival

On the surface, it may seem incongruous to suggest this concert had more in common with the Sun Ra Arkestra gig that took place in Sydney a week earlier than the many classic album shows of indie bands of yore.

For Third and the Arkestra, the creative lynchpin is absent. There’s no attempt to reconstruct what happened decades ago, but rather to present an in-the-moment expression of repertoire and aesthetic that connects with various generations of musical and wider artistic activity. Each succeeded in its own way in affirming the ongoing and participatory nature of definitive channels of musical inspiration, rather than the deification of a particular time and place in the shape of a certain long-playing record.

It’s no exaggeration to say that many members of the audience for Third left the Enmore Theatre with a sense of wonder.