Big Star’s Third Live
Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro
Friday, August 22 2014

The hypothetical passerby who happened to hear the chorus of voices issuing from Cat’s Cradle on Friday, singing, “Jesus Christ was born today/Jesus Christ was born,” might have envisioned a revival meeting of a sect that celebrates Christmas in August. But to the audience joining in with lead vocalist Mike Mills of R.E.M. and more than 30 musicians, this communal sing-along’s religious aspect probably had more to do with a Big Star of Memphis than with the star of Bethlehem. One indication of the lasting strength of Big Star? People of every stripe can’t help but participate in such a potentially divisive chorus.

A deeply held belief in the music of this ill-fated but influential band is what unites passionate fans as well as the musicians behind Big Star’s Third Live, a project initiated by Chris Stamey three years ago. Last week, the enterprise returned to the site of its first performances. The desire to do right by this music, to make it sound as good as the alluring original, runs through this complex enterprise.

Built around a core rock band and surrounded by strings, woodwinds and occasional brass, the overall sound picture is richly detailed. The orchestra gives the music lift, while the constant shift of lead singers provides the oomph. Hearing each vocalist give himself or herself over to these songs proved intriguing throughout.

The core band has grown familiar with the Third repertoire and can shift instrumental and vocal responsibilities as needed. So things are a bit looser now; it’s hard to imagine Jon Auer of the Posies floating a “Smoke on the Water” riff between songs as he did on Friday during the first go-round. Still, the set list has expanded: Where initial performances sprinkled in key tracks from the other two Big Star LPs along with solo songs by co-founder Chris Bell, this edition incorporated the band’s debut, #1 Record, in full. The most overtly Beatles-y and straightforward Big Star release, its inclusion upped the evening’s quotient of power-pop bliss while also presenting a challenge for the sprawling, sporadically performing troupe to master new songs on the quick.

The work required to reassemble these incredibly well-engineered songs with the punch and dynamic richness of the original is considerable. The original recordings were laden with careful sonic touches, and it’s in the gathering of all these stray sounds, as well as the songs’ vital core, that make the performances transformative. It was a night of continuous highlights for the faithful, myself included. The first set’s blissful moments were many. The complex pop beauty of “The Ballad of El Goodo,” with a passionate lead vocal by Django Haskins, who also functioned as de facto M.C., was an early stunner, as was Tift Merritt’s exquisite take on “Thirteen.” Merritt also performed on an extended version of “The India Song,” abetted by a hypnotic intro played on the sarod by John Heitzenrater. A quartet of four young vocalists, including Julia Stamey, daughter of Chris, was enchanting.
Everything changes from song to song. Vocalists shift from lead to backup. Instrumentalists exchange instruments. Electric bass becomes upright bass for a song or two. A basketball is bounced for percussion. As a result, the presentation has an element of a high-wire act without a net, and the occasional miscue is inevitable, especially with new material. The only song that really ran off the rails was the relatively meat-and-potatoes rocker “Don’t Lie to Me,” in which backstage tech-and-scheduling issues marred a moment for The Connells, stalwarts of Raleigh jangle pop since the mid-’80s.

Not surprisingly, the second set shone at a higher level, not only because of the greater depth of the material but because of the group’s familiarity with it. There were illuminating takes on songs that can feel interstitial on record, like Gary Louris’s Chilton-worthy vocal on the mournful “Take Care” and the gorgeous glints of slide guitar Mitch Easter offered for “Try Again.” Chris Stamey’s voice was wonderfully right for the ethereal “Nighttime.” And then there was Jody Stephens, clad in a T-shirt and neck bandana, looking barely changed from his angelic rock-boy look of the mid-’70s, stepping from behind the Plexiglas panels in front of his drum kit to sing the achingly tender “For You.” The pre-encore closer, “Thank You Friends” ended the performance on a note of pure triumph, showing no trace of the sneer that spices Chilton’s original version. At that moment, the words of an earlier song came to mind: “My Life Is Right.”

Encores of “September Gurls” and the Kinks’ “Till the End of the Day,” which Big Star recording during the Third sessions, culminated in “The Letter,” recorded by a 16-year-old Alex Chilton when he was in The Box-Tops. Even in that final moment of release, there was the familiar sight of Chris Stamey providing a necessary detail, running a small gizmo over the strings of his guitar to produce the jet-plane noise that plays over the song’s outro.

Big Star’s Third featuring Tift Merritt – “Thirteen”

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