Over the past thirty years, the size of Big Star’s posthumously released catalog (including reissues, a box set, archival dig, biography, documentary and tribute concert), has grown to match their stature as a key influence in rock music. What’s remained dear, are recordings of the band as a live act. With their debut having been stillborn commercially, the band played relatively few shows, and recorded even fewer. The scant live material known to exist includes rehearsals and a board tape from the Overton Park band shell in Memphis, an in-studio appearance on New York radio station WLIR-FM, and a widely bootlegged set opening for Badfinger in Cambridge.
The 2009 box set Keep An Eye on the Sky introduced another live performance, recorded in January 1973 in Memphis. Those same tracks are presented here in a standalone volume, with new restoration and mastering by Michael Graves, augmented by new liner note from Bud Scoppa, and a download of a previously unreleased 1972 radio interview with Alex Chilton and Andy Hummel. Recorded as a trio, after the departure of Chris Bell, the set list includes material from the debut, #1 Record, the yet-to-be-recorded follow-up Radio City, and covers of the Kinks, T-Rex, Todd Rundgren and Flying Burrito Brothers.
The fallout of #1 Record’s commercial failure, and Bell’s subsequent departure, left Big Star as more of a concept than a working band. The trio lineup had Chilton singing Bell’s leads (e.g., “My Life is Right”), and Stephens doing his best to fill in the harmonies. For a band that’s a man down, with no wind at their backs, an uncertain future ahead, and a passive crowd waiting to see Archie Bell & The Drells, they still muster plenty of emotion and energy. Chilton shows off his solo guitar skills on several tunes, including “She’s a Mover” and “Don’t Lie to Me,” and strums a mini-acoustic set that leads off with “Thirteen” and closes with “Watch the Sunrise.”
The stereo room recording isn’t as nuanced as their carefully crafted studio work, but it’s balanced and full, and Stephens and Hummel’s rhythm work comes across as both melodic and powerful. The audience, which to be fair, had likely never heard of Big Star, is oblivious to what’s happening in front of them and offers smatterings of polite applause. The trio could easily have taken the lack of response as a negative comment on their performance, but the set actually picks up steam several times, and after covers of Todd Rundgren’s “Slut” and the Kinks’ “Come on Now,” the band closes with the fiery take on the song that would open Radio City’s, “O My Soul.” The performance is sparse and raw compared to the finesse of the album’s layered productions, casting the set’s best-known songs in new light. Robert Gordon captured the effect perfectly in his 1992 liner notes for the original issue of Big Star Live:
“You find an old picture of your lover. It dates from before you'd met, and though you'd heard about this period in his or her life, seeing it adds a whole new dimension to the person who sits across from you at the breakfast table. You study the photograph and its wrinkles, looking for clues that might tell you more about this friend you know so well--can you see anything in the pockets of that jacket, can you read any book titles on the shelf in the background. You think about an archaeologist's work. When you next see your lover, you're struck by things you'd never noticed. The skin tone, the facial radiance--though the lamps in your house are all the same and the sun does not appear to be undergoing a supernova, he or she carries a different light. As strikingly similar as the way your lover has always appeared, he or she is also that different. You shrug and smile. Whatever has happened, you like it. That's what this recording is about.”
Chilton and Hummel’s laid-back, 14-minute 1972 interview covers the creation of #1 Record, group dynamics, Chilton’s musical tastes, touring and allusions to future recording. It’s an interesting peek into the mindset of musicians that don’t yet realize their first album isn’t going to be vested as an icon until several decades after its release. The interviewer asked, “Is the album out yet in the stores?” and Andy Hummel presciently replies, “Yeah, the album should have hit the stores today. I believe. That’s what they told us, but, you know, you never can tell when they’re actually gonna get there.” That reality-tinged optimism is a microcosm of the bridge this set constructs from the euphoria of the debut to the grief of its failure to the renewal that was still ahead. [©2018 Hyperbolium]