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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.

The 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 for sure.

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.

-David DeVoe


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