by John M. Borack
The latest in a continuing series of Los Angeles-based, multi-performer concerts to benefit the Autism Think Tank was a very special and highly anticipated one indeed: pop musicians from both coasts gathered at the Wilshire-Ebell Theater to celebrate the music of power pop icons Big Star by performing the band’s “#1 Record” and “Third” (aka Sister Lovers) albums in their entirety, with the legendary Van Dyke Parks conducting a string section.
Many of the artists involved are certainly well known within the pop music community (Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies, Mike Mills of R.E.M., Mitch Easter, Chris Stamey of the dBs), while some relative (and extremely talented) newbies and latecomers such as Django Haskins, Brett Harris and Skylar Gudasz also dotted the playbill. Many of these fine folks have performed the music of Big Star at similar tribute shows in the Carolinas and New York, but the was the first time the troupe has hit the left coast, and they more than got by with a little help from their SoCal friends.
Said friends included the Bangles (who, of course, successfully covered Big Star’s most iconic tune, “September Gurls,” back in the ’80s), Jason Falkner, Pete Yorn, Aimee Mann, and Tommy Keene, along with a very special guest: drummer/vocalist Jody Stephens, the last surviving member of Big Star. (Chris Bell passed in 1978, and the mercurial Alex Chilton and bassist Andy Hummel both died in 2010.)
I can tell you that the festivities were absolutely transcendent from beginning to end, with the pristine-sounding power pop of #1 Record still shining brightly and the twisted, often downright frightening proto-chamber pop moves of Sister Lovers still managing to induce chills alongside an odd feeling of warmth. Beyond that, here are some random observations about the evening:
—The opening number, “Feel,” was absolutely spine tingling and set the tone for the rest of the evening. Ken Stringfellow (who toured with Alex Chilton, Jody Stephens and fellow Posie Jon Auer as Big Star) tackled the difficult lead vocal with aplomb, Mitch Easter put the band through its paces, the horns were spot-on and Jody Stephens bashed away on the drums quite elegantly, without missing a beat (as he did the entire evening).
—The Bangles’ backing vocals on “The Ballad of El Goodo?” Sheer perfection.
—Mike Mills held court on a loose ‘n’ fun reading of “In the Street,” while the power pop dream team of Chris Stamey, Mitch Easter, Jody Stephens and Ken Stringfellow more than ably backed him up instrumentally.
—Durham, NC’s Skylar Gudasz offered up a stunningly beautiful version of the coming-of-age ballad “Thirteen,” while subtly bringing out the tune’s inherent country music element. This young lady has all the makings of a (big) star; watch for her debut album in 2015.
—Jody Stephens stepped out from behind the kit and sang a lovely version of “The India Song,” as I marveled at his fragile-yet-rich lead vocal, which sounded as crystal pure as they did when he originally sang the Andy Hummel composition more than 40 years ago.
—Susanna Hoffs and Aimee Mann wrapped their sweet voices around the haunting “Give Me Another Chance,” which was made all the more gorgeous by the Van Dyke Parks-led string section.
—“Try Again” was infused with a healthy dose of Southern religion by North Carolina’s Django Haskins (from the Yep Roc Records act the Old Ceremony), with Mitch Easter nailing the slide guitar part.
—The string section was a bit more raucous on the upbeat, Jon Auer-sung “Kizza Me,” but they were drowned out by the rest of the band. Still great, though.
—Ira Kaplan from art-popsters Yo La Tengo turned in an impassioned performance on “O Dana,” and after 40 years, I still have no idea what Alex Chilton’s lyrics mean here.
—The strings were once again prominent on another Jody Stephens-sung number, “For You,” and they added to the song’s innocent beauty. Mitch Easter took over on drums for this one. (Is there anything the man can’t do, I ask rhetorically?)
—The evening’s musical director Chris Stamey offered an amazing version of “Nighttime,” with the vulnerability of his lead vocal meshing perfectly with the tune’s evocative and sometimes painful imagery.
—Tommy Keene’s reading of “Take Care” (with its telling lyric “this sounds a bit like goodbye”) was appropriately somber as he was abetted by some left-field drum fills, accordion, and random bursts of strings.
—Singer/songwriter Sarabeth Tucek was joined by Ken Stringfellow on the weird and wonderful “Big Black Car,” which again featured instruments leaping in and out of the mix out of nowhere, similiar to the original. A tough tune to recreate, but the ensemble pulled it off.
—“Stroke It, Noel” was always one of the more off-kilter pieces on Sister Lovers, and with Ken Stringfellow out in front, the performance this night resulted in a beautiful cacophony, fed by the amazing string section and some slammin’ drums.
—It was then Jody Stephens’ turn at the mic once again, and his gentle reading of the absolutely gorgeous “Blue Moon” (complete with bassoon) was simply perfect.
—Chris Stamey told a humorous story about how “Alex backed me up with a blender” when they performed the completely unhinged “Downs” at CBGB’s back in the day. Ira Kaplan and Ken Stringfellow then managed to bring the song to life once again, backed by Mike Mills on the basketball (!).
—The grim sadness of “Holocaust” (sung with fragile soul by Django Haskins) was emphasized by the sobbing, scary strings and some ethereal, other-wordly backing vocals (pure genius). This is a Chilton tune that sounds like it could have slotted in rather nicely on the Beach Boys’ Smile record.
—More reminiscing from Chris Stamey: “I was playing with Alex and we were at a skating rink opening for Dwight Twilley. Alex said, “Let’s try this one.” “This one” was the wonderfully weird “Kanga Roo” (which must have really had the Twilley fans scratching their collective heads), nicely sung by Brett Harris this night and building in intensity until the number’s climax.
—The regular portion of the program ended with a group sing on “Thank You, Friends,” which saw most of the evening’s vocalists taking a turn at the mic. It was a joyous noise, indeed.
—Encores were plentiful and included a fiery version of the Kinks’ “Till the End of the Day” with Mitch Easter on lead vocals and Jon Auer on lead guitar; a lovely rendition of Chris Bell’s solo masterwork “You and Your Sister,” with Brett Harris handling vocal chores; a smart acoustic reworking of “Way Out West,” with Jody Stephens singing; Pete Yorn taking on Chris Bell’s other solo masterwork, “I Am the Cosmos,” with Chris Stamey adding dollops of stinging electric guitar; and Ira Kaplan, Stamey and Mike Mills (playing either a drill or a toy gun; I couldn’t tell from my vantage point) breaking out the loopy Chilton solo cut, “Bangkok.”
—The grand finale (save for a brief acoustic “I’m in Love With a Girl,” played after the PA was shut down due to time restrictions) featured the Bangles doing “September Gurls,” which of course sounded wonderful. It put the lid on a glorious evening of music and camaraderie, all for a great cause.
As Ken Stringfellow passed me backstage after the show, he asked, “Well, how did we do?” Amazing, pure and simple, Ken. ‘Twas a show for the ages.
For more information on the Autism Think Tank, visit autismthinktanknj.com