Big Star Shine Again, Thanks to a Memorable Tribute Package
This has been a terrific time for fans of the late, great Big Star. Last fall brought a definitive three-CD reissue of Third, the influential rock group’s most celebrated album, that includes a ton of fine, previously unreleased material. Now comes another three-disc collection, this one the result of a consistently fabulous Big Star tribute concert that took place in April of last year in Glendale, California.
Called Thank You, Friends: Big Star’s Third Live…and More, this package features a surround-sound concert DVD (or Blu-ray) that also includes some interview material; the other two discs deliver the same performances on CD. (You can also buy those CDs without the video disc, but I think you’d be making a mistake to forgo it.) As the title suggests, the concert embraces Big Star’s entire third album, which was recorded in 1974 but not released until four years later. Also here are such standouts from the group’s two earlier albums as “September Gurls” (which you may know from the Bangles’ version) and “Back of a Car.”
The band for this tribute concert, who have been performing these songs on tour worldwide since 2010, call themselves Big Star’s Third. They include drummer Jody Stephens, the only surviving member of the original quartet, plus Mitch Easter (Let’s Active), Mike Mills (R.E.M.), Chris Stamey (the db’s), Ken Stringfellow (the Posies), and several lesser-known but fine players. They are joined on the concert featured here by guests who include Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Pat Sansone, Robyn Hitchcock, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Benmont Tench, the Posies’ Jon Auer, and the genre-hopping Kronos Quartet.
This is clearly a labor of love for all concerned, and given the quality of Big Star’s material, that’s no wonder. Listening to these beautifully performed versions of classics like Alex Chilton’s “I’m in Love with a Girl” and “Dream Lover” and Chilton and Christopher Bell’s “Thirteen” (which gets an exquisite, star-making vocal treatment here from Skylar Dudasz), you have to shake your head and wonder why the group never achieved wide success.
Perhaps this recording will help their music to finally garner the recognition it deserves. As Rolling Stone’s Anthony DeCurtis writes in the excellent liner notes, “This performance is not an attempt to re-create Big Star’s Third. That would be impossible, and maybe even pointless. Instead, it is an attempt to conjure that album’s unruly spirit, to find once again in these songs the desperate beauty that can come only when you have nothing to lose because everything has already been lost.”
It is an “attempt” that succeeds completely.
Mick Kolassa & Mark Telesca, You Can’t Do That!. Kolassa and Telesca are blues singers and guitarists as well as major Beatles fans, and they combine their passions on this collection of acoustic covers. Joined by guitarist Jeff Jensen and James Cunningham and a few other support players on selected tracks, they reimagine 11 Fab Four classics, ranging from relatively early compositions like the title cut and “I Feel Fine” to Abbey Road’s “Mean Mr. Mustard/Polythene Pam” and “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window.” All of the duo’s reinventions work well, but some of them work very well. In this latter group, I’d list a moody, fiddle-spiced “Lady Madonna”; “She’s a Woman,” which features a flugelhorn player; and a blues-guitar-heavy rendition of Sgt. Pepper’s “Fixing a Hole.”
The Mastersons, Transient Lullaby. The Mastersons, a husband-and-wife act consisting of Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore, have been members of Steve Earle’s band for seven years. It was he who encouraged them to step out on their own. Transient Lullaby, their third release, confirms his faith in them with a strong collection of original material that keeps their rich harmony vocals in the forefront. Whitmore’s string arrangements add depth to a contemplative and emotional album about the ups and downs of relationships and life on the road. Chris’s vocals and guitar work remind me at times of the Jayhawks; other times I think of the Kennedys, another husband-and-wife act that profits from indelible melodies and harmonies. When all the elements come together, such as on the six-minute “You Could Be Wrong,” the results are nothing less than sublime.
Peter Hook & the Light, Unknown Pleasures—Live in Leeds 2012; Closer—Live in Manchester 2011; Power, Corruption & Lies—Live in Dubin 2013; Movement—Live in Dublin 2013. If you’re already a Peter Hook fan, your ship has come in, and if you’re not, here’s your chance to start cheering: four well-recorded, simultaneously released live albums, two of which are double CDs. Hook cofounded two of the most noteworthy British bands of recent decades—Joy Division and its successor, New Order—and with his current group, he performs live versions of the earlier outfits’ albums, in their entirety and in their original sequence, plus singles and assorted obscurities. With live discs readily available from the original New Order and Joy Division, you might think that these recordings would be unnecessary; but Hook, who provides both the passionate lead vocals and the prominent bass lines on these new renditions, reinvigorates the material to the point of giving the earlier CDs some serious competition. These performances are immersive, intense, and, at their best, exciting.
Jeff Burger’s books include Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters, and Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters. His website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades' worth of music reviews and commentary.