Big Star’s Memphis is big-time enjoyable

Big_Star_Live_In_Memphis_OV-107BIG STAR
“Live in Memphis”
Omnivore Recordings
(OVLP-107: LP)
(OVDVD-107: DVD)
(OVCD-107: CD)

3 out of 5 stars

The Biggest Memphis Music Event of the Decade. Big Star in their Farewell U.S. Performance,” trumpeted the poster for an October 1994 show at the New Daisy Theatre from the recently resuscitated power pop legends. With original members Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens joined by Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow from alt-popsters The Posies, the hometown gig was captured for posterity by filmmaker Danny Graflund, using multiple cameras and soundboard audio. The results collected dust for 20 years but have now been released on CD, DVD and as a beautiful, two-LP vinyl version, complete with a gatefold sleeve and pressed on translucent red vinyl.

The late Alex Chilton always seemed rather ambiguous about Big Star’s substantial legacy, but in front of a crowd filled with family, friends and supporters, he seems for the most part to be happily engaged and leads the rest of the band through a spirited, straightforward set filled with most of Big Star’s signature tunes from their three 1970s albums, along with a selection of cool (Kinks, T-Rex, Todd Rundgren) covers. That means the listener (and viewer) gets treated to power pop classics such as “Don’t Lie to Me” (which comes close to falling apart on more than one occasion, only to be saved by Chilton’s raw, powerful guitar work), “In the Street,” “When My Baby’s Beside Me” and, of course, the iconic “September Gurls.”

Sure there are some blown notes and more than a few foul-ups throughout the 19-song set, but the high spirits and sense of fun are palpable, making for a highly enjoyable listening (and viewing) experience. And the Posies are certainly more than capable foils for Chilton and Stephens (who sings lead on the pretty “For You” and “Way Out West” and provides powerful, tasteful drumming throughout); as a matter of fact, the Auer and Stringfellow-led “Back of a Car” and “Daisy Glaze” are two of the set’s high points, as is Auer’s lovely, passionate reading of the late Chris Bell’s solo masterpiece “I Am the Cosmos,” which was originally recorded a few years after Bell quit Big Star.

The only real issue with “Live in Memphis” is the fact that most of the drums sound as if they were recorded inside a gymnasium, and often come close to overpowering the other instruments (although this seems to be less of an issue on the warm-sounding vinyl than it does on the CD and DVD). On “Daisy Glaze,” for example, Stephens’ snare hits heading into the song’s closing section sound like (extremely booming) gunshots.

Still, “Live in Memphis” is a worthy addition to the Big Star canon, not only for the historical value and the versions of the songs power pop fans know and love, but also for little things such as Chilton’s casual cool and his always-underrated lead guitar playing; his seemingly impromptu, cornball reading of “The Girl From Ipanema;” and the fact that he pulls out a hopelessly obscure mid-‘60s track called “Patty Girl” (recorded by pre-pubescent Ohio popsters Gary and the Hornets back in the day) and makes it sound like something that could have fit on either of the first two Big Star records. But just to prove that he hasn’t gone soft, the ever-iconoclastic Chilton also can’t resist shouting, “Every last one of you f*cking creeps” during the otherwise joyous rendition of “Thank You Friends.” Oh, and as Jody Stephens explains in the liners, the “Big Star in their Farewell U.S. Performance” bit on the posters advertising the show was just a tad deceptive: “We played Los Angeles three days later and went on to play together for another 16 years,” Stephens admits. “No one ever said anything about the poster.” Go to www.omnivorerecordings.com for more information. 

— John M. Borack

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