A small army of veteran rockers assembled for a rare performance inspired by the music of Big Star, joined by an orchestra led by master collaborator and conductor Van Dyke Parks. Big Star, for the uninitiated was, perhaps, one of the first non commercial rock bands who helped form the sub genre “power pop” prior to their first breakup in 1974. Two of the original four members did a twenty year reunion tour in 1994, with Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer of the Posies, filling in for the two absent members. That tour featured the main creative force behind the band Alex Chilton. Chilton, sadly passed away in 2010, as did original bass player Andy Hummel. Guitarist Chris Bell, died back in 1978, when he crashed his Triumph TR-7 and became yet another rock star in the cursed 27 club. Drummer Jody Stephens is now the only surviving member of the band, and fittingly he was the nucleus for much of the Los Angeles concert.
The venue chosen for the benefit concert, organized by Trunkworthy and Wild Honey for the Autism Think Tank, was just as special as the musical cast that assembled. The ornate Wilshire Ebell theater was built back in 1927, and has been designated an Official American Treasure. Although The 1270 seat theater is an older suburban area of Los Angeles, outside of the nearby Hollywood nightlife zone, the roll call of superstar performers who have graced the stage there over the last century is truly astounding. Against this magnificent backdrop, a multitude of indie performers assembled to perform Big Star’s first and third albums (#1 Record & Third/Sister Lovers), as well as a half dozen random tunes from the band during an extended encore. The carefully choreographed concert followed the script of a detailed program, with an intermission between the two decidedly different albums.
Chris Stamey, who actually played in a band called Sneakers with Alex Chilton and Mitch Easter, (who became R.E.M.’s producer), was the initial catalyst for the ambitious project. Stamey had already done a short tour featuring the music of Sisters Lovers including Easter, and REM bass player Mike Mills. The concert added the band’s first album in keeping with the format offered up by the producers Wild Honey Foundation, who have used the two album formula in past benefit presentations. Taking advantage of the near perfect acoustics of the art deco theater, the performers took the stage right on time, to begin the near three hour performance. The astounding number of performers shared one thing in common, an uncanny ability to produce uniform vocal harmonies that became the signature bond of the evening. Whether the music took on a soft acoustic approach or a rowdy rocker turn, a punk frenzy or a song drenched in classical orchestration, there always seemed to be impeccable vocals emerging from the mix.
The evening started with the presentation of Big Star’s 1972, # 1 Record, in its entirety. The upbeat album, was embraced by the legion of veteran performers on hand for the event. Stringfellow sang the opener, inspired no doubt by his 1994 reunion performance with Chilton and Stephens. Dan Wilson, lead singer of Seismonic, joined by the soothing vocals of the Bangles came next, followed by Mike Mills taking a competent turn as lead singer. Young singer Skylar Gudasz brought a fresh infusion of vocal energy to the fourth tune of the night “Thirteen.” Jason Faulkner joined Auer for the next song. as Stephens moved to the front of the stage to perform lead vocals on the next song. Grouplove took over the vocals next and a few songs later pop siren Aimee Mann joined by Susanna Hoffs (Bangles), who did an astounding harmonization on the song “Give me Another Chance”. North Carolina transplant Django Haskins, (The Old Ceremony), brought the rock beat back on the next tune, “Try Again”. Vicki Peterson, (Bangles) kept the rock guitar beat going on the next song “Watch The Sunrise”, with another North Californian Brett Harris taking over lead vocals.
After a well earned intermission, the stage again swelled with musicians set to perform the 16 song Third/Sisters Lovers. The final album from the enigmatic group was created back in 1974 and is a much darker and more brooding piece of work than its predecessors. But, although the album, which was composed almost entirely by Chilton himself, is a much harder piece of music to appreciate on a purely sensory level, the intricacy of the music and the intellect exhibited in the lyrics make it a musical masterpiece that serious musicians seem to gravitate towards from across many musical genres.
The carefully assembled orchestra composed of veteran classical musicians played a much greater role in the second half of the evening, giving the third album the extra musical dimension that it needs to be truly appreciated as a live performance. Conductor Van Dyke Parks is no stranger to the pop music world, having collaborated with musicians as diverse as Brian Wilson, Rufus Wainwright, Ry Cooder, Harry Nilsson, and Ringo Starr. The live performance of the orchestra alone would have been a complete musical presentation. But this was a night for Big Star devotees to shine brightly and they did so brilliantly. All the aforementioned pop stars returned throughout the long presentation of the third album, joined by an ever expanding cast of musical characters. Ira Kaplan (Yo La Tengo) took over the lead on the third song of the night, “O Dana”, and brought solid rock energy to much of the rest of the evening. Stephens then took over the lead vocals for the one song that he wrote for the album, “For You”. Another North Carolinian, Chris Stamey, took his first turn of the night as lead vocalist on the fifth song of the album “Nighttime.”
Mills then returned as the lead vocalist on a well done version of “Jesus Christ”. Onstage for nearly every song, Mills was not only the go to bass player for most of the evening but he even became the sound effects specialist, playing everything from a bouncing basketball to a toy ray gun. Tommy Keene took over lead vocals for the first time, on the seventh song, “Take Care”, and brought his own brand of power pop energy to the mix. Critically lauded artist Sarabeth Tucek sang her first lead vocals of the night on the next song, “Big Black Car”. Lead vocal duties were split on the next song, between Dean Wareham and Hoffs Wareham, who has been in several bands, most notably Galaxie 500, has a highly reviewed solo album which was produced by Jim James of My Morning Jacket fame. The two performed an eerie rendition of the eleventh song on the album “Femme Fatale”, which was written by Lou Reed. Early reviews of Big Star often made comparisons to Lou Reed’s Velvet Underground band. The entire ensemble appeared onstage for a choiresque finale of the third album, singing a heartfelt “Thank You Friends”, while a packed house of adulate fans offered an extended standing ovation all throughout the song.
If that wasn’t enough music offered up for the evening, there was still more to come in the extended concert. With little fanfare, and battling an 11pm curfew, the ensemble immediately launched into a six song encore of random Big Star songs not yet played and began the set with a Kinks classic “Til the End of the Day”. Mitch Easter nailed the vocals in the Ray Davies classic. There was one last surprise performer with singer/songwriter Pete Yorn taking over lead vocals on the Chris Bell song “I Am the Cosmos”. Given Big Star’s missing members, poignantly including the lines “I’d really like to see you again”. Big Star’s second album Radio City was magnificently represented by “Way Out West” sung by Stephens and Luther Russell, “Back of a Car” sung by Auer and Stringfellow, and “September Gurls” performed by The Bangles who had covered it way back in 1986. A nice bonus, not listed on the program, was the acoustic version of “I’m in Love With a Girl” sung by Hoffs and Jason Falkner, with the pair coming to the edge of the stage and performing unamplified.
By this time, the marathon concert had stretched nearly three hours. After the show the musicians lingered long into the night in the theater, chatting with fans and signing autographs. Smiles could be seen on most everyone’s face after pulling off one of the most ambitious musical projects in recent memory.
Feel – Ken Stringfellow
The Ballad of El Goodo – Dan Wilson with the Bangles
In The Street – Mike Mills
Thirteen – Skylar Gudasz
Don’t Lie to Me – Jason Falkner and Jon Auer
The India Song – Jody Stephens
When My Baby’s Beside Me – GroupLove
My Life Is Right – Ken Stringfellow
Give Me Another Chance – Aimee Mann with Susanna Hoffs
Try Again – Django Haskins
Watch the Sunrise – Vicki Peterson and Brett Harris
ST 100/6 – Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow
– intermission –
Nature Boy (Eden Ahbez / Nat King Cole cover) – Django Haskins
Kizza Me – Jon Auer
O Dana – Ira Kaplan
For You – Jody Stephens
Nightime – Chris Stamey
Jesus Christ – Mike Mills
Take Care – Tommy Keene
Big Black Car – Sarabeth Tucek
Stroke It, Noel – Ken Stringfellow
Blue Moon – Jody Stephens
Femme Fatale (Velvet Underground cover) – Dean Wareham with Susanna Hoffs
Downs – Ira Kaplan and Ken Stringfellow
Dream Lover – Skylar Gudasz and Ken Stringfellow
Holocaust – Django Haskins
You Can’t Have Me – Mike Mills and Skylar Gudasz
Kangaroo – Brett Harris
Thank You, Friends – Ensemble
Till the End of the Day (Kinks cover) – Mitch Easter
Morpha Too – Skylar Gudasz, Mike Mills, Brett Harris
You and Your Sister (Chris Bell solo song) – Brett Harris
Way Out West – Jody Stephens and Luther Russell
Back of a Car – Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow
I Am the Cosmos (Chris Bell solo song) – Pete Yorn
Bangkok (Alex Chilton solo song) – Ira Kaplan
September Gurls – The Bangles
I’m in Love With a Girl – Susannah Hoffs and Jason Falkner