Thank You, Friends: Big Star’s Third Live
Carolina Theatre, Durham
Friday, April 21, 2017

To the uninitiated, a film about a Big Star tribute concert that happened a year ago in Glendale, California, might seem a rock history footnote. And if the relatively paltry turnout at its North Carolina premiere last Friday is any indication, most of us around here are uninitiated.

But to those of us who know, Big Star’s centrality to the seventies and eighties indie rock canon justifies just about everything Big Star. Not only every tribute show but every remaster, reissue, bonus track, live recording, torn handbill, or other outlying piece of memorabilia.

The songs are bright and melodic, like The Byrds, The Rolling Stones, The Carpenters, and The Kinks all rolled into one, constructed of vocal harmonies over power pop chord progressions and shimmering Rickenbacker twelve-string riffs that prefigure R.E.M., the Replacements, the Jayhawks, Guided By Voices, Elliott Smith, and quite a few others.

Big Star’s lore is irresistible, embodying the alternative music mythology of the band that changed everything but which nobody’s heard of. And the history is appropriately tragic, with just one of the original band members still alive today.

That band member, founding drummer Jody Stephens, was at Friday night’s premiere. He introduced the event with a few words: “We show up because we love the music. Enjoy.”

The film itself isn’t quite a documentary; most of it is footage of the aforementioned 2016 show in Glendale. But what a show! A stage-filling ensemble—including Jeff Tweedy (Wilco), Mike Mills (R.E.M.), Ira Kaplan (Yo La Tengo), Robyn Hitchcock, and the Kronos Quartet—performs songs from all the Big Star albums with a special focus on Third.

And the record holds up. It grows, brightens like morning light. Honestly, it’s heaven music played by angels on instruments mortals cannot comprehend. In addition to getting to see all these rock ‘n’ rollers lay considerable tribute at the feet of a legendary band, one also experiences, or re-experiences, the sheer delight of Alex Chilton’s songcraft.

As the film ended, the lights came up and Jody Stephens and Chris Stamey took the stage, followed by other participants in the project: Django Haskins of The Old Ceremony, vocalist Skylar Gudasz, drummer Dale Baker, Chuck Cleaver, Jeff Crawford, and Mitch Easter. This largely North Carolina-based ensemble played five Big Star songs including soaring renditions of “Way Out West” and “Blue Moon,” with Gudasz’s gorgeous voice making a particularly strong impression.

But they also performed The Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes,” which, in terms of this review’s arc anyway, was of utmost importance. Nearly fifty years old, “Pale Blue Eyes” arguably contains the DNA of not only VU but Big Star, R.E.M., Patti Smith, and many other bands. Not only the songwriting but the lyrics, which are sunny but melancholic, shimmering but drowsy, as is the signature of these many bands. A cover of it is one of the standouts on R.E.M.’s Dead Letter Office.

Despite the low attendance for the premiere, the screening highlighted the area’s rich bed of talent, which has had a lasting impact on music on a national level. You don’t have to look any further than Easter’s work with R.E.M. Friends, we live among indie rock deities! It’s too bad we don’t seem to know it.