Thursday, March 15
I spent the morning Thursday sleeping in. I have
to admit it; I was exhausted already. Perhaps it was because of all
the traveling and hauling around gear the day before, but I was plum
worn out. With the festival officially beginning a day early (and
some events even before that) it is hard to sort out how the older
folks who come down to do business and scout bands and report are
supposed to keep up. Three days used to be hard enough, then four,
but now with five days of this madness to cope with, it's just tiring....
I felt a bit refreshed after a morning of sleep and headed back to
the mayhem of downtown in time to catch a couple of short day sets.
Nothing too outrageous or anything worth really remembering, just
more noise from the ever-present corners of 6th Street. When the time
came, I headed over to the Paramount Theater to catch a screening
of the unfinished Big Star documentary and Third tribute
show. Before I really get into the events of the evening, let me just
say that this entire experience was life-changing. I don't know how
anyone could have been present for the show and not come away a little
bit different. Between the movie and live performance the evening
was a religious experience and left me thinking about things differently,
and, hopefully, made me a little better presence in the world.
The documentary, though not in its final edit, was stunning. A fantastic
tribute to the individual members of the band and a very informative
work on not only the history of Big Star, but on the Memphis music
scene in the 1970s. A lot of interesting things were brought to light
about the individual lives of band members and the world that existed
around them during the making and release of those first remarkable
albums, as well as into the 2000s and the continuing story of the
band through today. The death of Alex Chilton two years ago
was discussed, but felt somewhat glossed over. I understand that there
is a lot of history to cover, and a lot of the intervening, as well
as later era, work was covered rather speedily. Of course, the film
is not yet completed and was very well put together for a screening
to coincide with the concert. The film did a wonderful job of hitting
on many of the things that have made Big Star, Chris Bell,
and Alex Chilton (as well as other members) such an enduring legacy
among modern rock artists and fans. The film taught me a lot of things
that I hadn't known about the Big Star camp, not the least of which
was how much music Chilton had made aside from just producing records
in the 1980s and on.
show itself was simply stunning. As soon as the orchestra section
had walked on stage and tuned, M. Ward sat down at the piano
and started things off with a startling and eerie singing of "Nature
Boy." The list of special guests was long, and I'm not entirely
sure who a few of the folks were who joined in on various songs, but
the core band for the evening was Jody Stephens (of Big Star)
on drums and Chris Stamey and Mitch Easter (dBs)
on guitar and occasional other things. Stamey has been the coordinating
force behind the show, and his direction on stage evidenced that fact.
He was lively and played very well himself. Mitch Easter occasionally
covered on drums, especially when Jody Stephens took front stage to
sing lead on a song. Other guests that I know were The Dunwells,
Peter Case, Tommy Stinson (Replacements), Jon
Auer and Ken Stringfellow (Posies), Peter Buck,
Ari Picker (Lost In The Trees), Matt McMichaels,
and Star And Micey. One of the true surprises of the evening
was Tommy Stinson. There have been many rumors of his difficulty over
the years, but when he came on stage he was swaggering, but professional,
and did an absolutely wonderful job singing on "Nighttime."
His voice was rich and melancholy, making things seem perfect for
four minutes, transcending his reputation and adding to the rich tapestry
of the evening's music.
Peter Case came out and sang "Stroke It, Noel" and did
a great job. His voice is as powerful and clear as it has been for
30+ years, and while he's looking a bit on the older side, he seems
to be just as relevant and active as he ever was. A fantastic addition
to the night's lineup. It surprised me that Jon Auer came out on stage
and sang a song without playing any guitar. Auer, along with fellow
Posie Ken Stringfellow, was one of the musicians who resurrected Big
Star with Alex Chilton for the 2000s. Auer sounded great, and did
a fine job on his vocals, as Stamey and Easter moved around behind
him and the 15-piece orchestra really warmed up for the show. As Auer
sang "Big Black Car", it was fun to see him not know what
to do with his hands since he did not have a guitar strapped on. Peter
Buck took the stage, but stayed at the rear of the stage, and joined
in on 12-string guitar for a beautiful rendition of the classic (and
oft-covered) Velvet Underground tune, "Femme Fatale."
Jody Stephens took lead vocals on a brilliant and low version of "Blue
Moon", which also brought an oboe player onto the stage. This
song jumped to life backed by the strings and acoustic guitars, and
was definitely a highlight of the show.
Memphis wonderband Star And Micey added a bit of non-traditional
fun to the show, bringing out percussion instruments to accompany
themselves, and most impressively they bounced a basketball to thicken
out the kick drum. For the immortal
"Holocaust," Stamey puts an ebow to the acoustic guitar,
fleshing things out with buzzing strings and creating a din that made
the song leap off the stage with a power that was unbelievable as
the band quickly launched into "Kangaroo" with the same
ferocity and grace. The Third part of the evening finished
up with almost everyone who had played the evening coming on stage
for a beautiful and touching version of "Thank You Friends."
Vocalists took turns alternating lead vocal lines during the verses
and everyone joined in to thicken out a church-like choir on choruses.
Directly after the wispy darkness of "Kangaroo" it was quite
a striking change; full of exultant and joyful energy. After the last
notes of "Thank You Friends" faded away, Stamey announced
that they had a few more of their favorite Big Star songs that they
would like to play and a good few folks stayed out on stage for an
entirely second concert, including the great Chris Bell songs "I
Am The Cosmos" and "You And Your Sister," as well as
some other Big Star Favorites, like "Thirteen." Chilton's
solo work was well-represented, including a raucous version of "Bangkok"
featuring Ben and Rick from Lucero. To finish
the evening off, Peter Case once again took the stage to lead the
all-star band in a rousing version of the Box Tops' classic
"The Letter," a song that Chilton was responsible for in
his first band.
The concert really highlighted the amazing music, the beauty and
delicacy, of Third, as well as much more of the Big Star catalog.
It was a life changing music, filled with amazing songs played by
great, impassioned fans of the music itself. The music this night
really brought home just how much music that followed and just how
many musicians were inspired by and informed by the music of Big Star.
It was a long and amazing night of music, and one that changed the
way I will forever think about life and music and love and people
and places and everything.
It would be hard to follow that show up, but with a myriad of thoughts
swimming in my head I went to stand in line to see if I could get
into the Jesus And Mary Chain show. The band immediately before
the Mary Chain was just starting when I arrived. They call themselves
Titus Andronicus, and they do know how to rock. The best thing
about the band was that among all the rock, they took one guitarist
and turned him loose to sound like bagpipes. They played some great
songs, and they fact that they sounded like a much, much heavier Big
Country certainly didn't hurt. I'll be checking out their record
The line was long and the venue was full, so the first half of the
show I spent listening outside. Luckily for the 500 or so folks in
line, it was an outdoor venue and we could hear the music as it was
played out on the street. The Mary Chain turned in a stellar performance,
perhaps one of the finest I've ever seen them play. The set list touched
on all the "hits" from all the albums, starting with such
greats as "Blues From A Gun" and "Head On" and
"Sidewalking." There was no tracks off the early records,
no Darklands or Psychocandy; there were no Beach
Boys covers; there was only pure, unadulterated JAMC. While there
were definitely songs - a lot of them - that didn't get played, I
could not find fault with the set that did get played. The band was
tight; they sounded well-rehearsed and like they were enjoying being
together on stage, even the banter between the Reid boys was fairly
light. It was definitely what one could consider a singles show, with
no new material at all. But most folks don't come to hear new material
from the fathers of noise rock. They come to hear feedbacking guitars,
fuzzy bass, powerfully pounding drums, and buried vocals, and the
crowd tonight got all that spiced up with the pure energy of Scotland's
finest rock band.
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