Ardent Studios

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Jody Stephens, the drummer for the legendary band Big Star, kindly agreed to let me tag along Sept. 30, 2016, on a private tour he was giving at Ardent Studios — the Memphis recording studio where Big Star made its classic records, along with countless other artists over the years, including the Replacements and R.E.M. Ardent is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Stephens works as Ardent’s business development director — and he’s still active as a musician, writing and singing some lovely songs in the vein of Big Star’s acoustic ballads, on the self-titled album of his new band, Those Pretty Wrongs.

Stephens showed us through the studios, amiably chatting about the equipment and the people who have played inside those walls. “Playing music together is kind of like recipes,” he remarked at one point. “Everybody has their own ingredients for what they put in.” Discussing the best place to put the drums in a room, he said, “Everybody has a different idea of where the sweet spot is.”

That neon big star in the reception area isn’t the one that was used on the cover of Big Star’s Radio City — it’s a replica. But Jody’s the real thing.

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Also see:

My roundup of Gonerfest and my visit to Memphis

More Gonerfest 2016 photo galleries:

Day 1 — opening ceremonies at Cooper Young Gazebo (Nots) and nighttime show at Hi Tone (emcee Jim Dandy, Hash Redactor, Chook Race, Counter Intuits, Useless Eaters, Fred & Toody, Reigning Sound)

Day 2 daytime party at Memphis Made Brewing (LSDOGS, Kool 100s, Trampoline Team, Pity)

Day 2 nighttime show at Hi Tone (Opposite Sex, Aquarian Blood, Power, Buck Biloxi, Blind Shake, Black Lips)

Day 3 daytime party at Murphy’s (Casual Burn, Bloodbags, Fire Retarded, Archie & The Bunkers, Iron Head, Zerodent, Oh Boland, Bloody Show, The World, Spray Paint)

Day 3 nighttime show at Hi Tone (emcee Tom Scharpling, Couteau Latex, Sick Thoughts, Bloodshot Bill, Control Freaks, Midnight Snaxxx, Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds)

A visit to Al Green’s church

Photos of Memphis.

Big Star’s Third in Concert

Jody Stephens
Jody Stephens

Back when I discovered the music of Big Star as a college student, my first impression was that the band’s first two albums, #1 Record and Radio City, were overlooked classics, while its third album, Third (Sister Lovers), was a weird mess. But then Rykodisc’s 1992 reissue of that troubled Third opened my ears to what a majestic collection of music it truly was. Over the years, it has grown in my estimation considerably, so that it stands together with Big Star’s other album as a masterpiece. Another remastered version, with a different track sequence, was included in the 2009 Rhino box set Keep an Eye on the Sky. I’m most accustomed to the 1992 Rykodisc version, but one of the things that makes Third so fascinating is that there really is no one definitive version.

It’s a shame that Big Star’s Alex Chilton never performed the whole record live with the string accompaniment it needs. But since Chilton died in 2010, a group of his colleagues and admirers has put together a concert version of Big Star’s Third. It made its Chicago debut on Friday (June 28) at Park West. The driving force behind this project was Chris Stamey of The dB’s, working together with Mitch Easter of Let’s Active, Ken Stringellow of the Posies (who played in the latter-day reunited Big Star), and, of course, drummer Jody Stephens, the only surviving member of Big Star.

As the concert visits each city, it brings in some local musicians to fill out the lineup. The Chicago edition featured locals Sally Timms (Mekons), Ed Roeser (Urge Overkill), Tim Rutili (Califone), Josh Caterer (Smoking Popes) and saxophonist Ken Vandermark as well as Gary Louris (the Jayhawks) and Amy Speace. The touring band included singers Django Haskins, Brett Harris and Skylar Gudasz; and a chamber orchestra. (Gudasz also played flute in the chamber orchestra and performed a short opening set of her delicate piano ballads.)

Like the original record, the concert was messy and imperfect. At a few moments, the guest singers flubbed lyrics. (Rutili seemed unfamiliar with many of the words he was tasked to sing.) But at many other moments, Chilton’s haunting and strange music sounded glorious. Stephens, whose drumming parts were a crucial ingredient in making Big Star’s songs so memorable, stepped out from behind the drums to sing “Blue Moon” and “For You,” a song that he wrote. At the climax of Third, most of the musicians who’d played over the course of the evening crowded onto the stage for a rousing “Thank You Friends.”

The concert didn’t end there. The ad hoc group played several more Big Star songs, as well as three of the songs that Big Star’s Chris Bell recorded as a solo artist, and the one radio hit that Alex Chilton had during his career, the Box Tops’ “The Letter.”

Big Star’s music, which was almost completely overlooked when it came out in the 1970s, now feels like it has the respect it deserved all along.

Watch for the new documentary, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (opening at the Music Box in Chicago on July 13), with a soundtrack album featuring newly mastered versions of Big Star songs and some previously unreleased versions.

Ken Stringfellow
Ken Stringfellow
Django Haskins
Django Haskins
Mitch Easter
Mitch Easter
Skylar Gudasz
Skylar Gudasz
Sally Timms
Sally Timms
Chris Stamey
Chris Stamey
Josh Caterer
Josh Caterer
Ken Vandermark
Ken Vandermark
Ken Stringfellow and Josh Caterer
Ken Stringfellow and Josh Caterer
Jody Stephens
Jody Stephens
Brett Harris
Brett Harris
Ed Roeser
Ed Roeser

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Gary Louris and Django Haskins
Gary Louris and Django Haskins
Ed Roeser, Tim Rutilit and Django Haskins
Ed Roeser, Tim Rutilit and Django Haskins
Josh Caterer, Ed Roeser and Ken Stringfellow
Josh Caterer, Ed Roeser and Ken Stringfellow
Josh Caterer, Gary Louris, Ed Roeser and Chris Stamey
Josh Caterer, Gary Louris, Ed Roeser and Chris Stamey
Brett Harris, Skylar Gudasz, Tim Rutili and Amy Speace
Brett Harris, Skylar Gudasz, Tim Rutili and Amy Speace
Ken Stringfellow and Chris Stamey
Ken Stringfellow and Chris Stamey
Gary Louris
Gary Louris
Tim Rutili and Django Haskins
Tim Rutili and Django Haskins

The dream of Big Star


So many songs are recorded every year. Thousands of them are forgettable, but there are always some good, even great songs. Some of those great songs are heard by only a few people. For whatever reason, they don’t reach listeners. Sometimes record labels are to blame. Sometimes radio is the bad guy. Sometimes it just seems like fate. Some music gets noticed, some doesn’t. And unfortunately, good songs seem to disappear before you even get a chance to hear them.

Big Star’s entire recorded output in the 1970s was like that. Barely anyone heard this band while it was still together. It never had a hit record. Its albums sold a few thousand copies and went out of print. Listening now to a recording of a 1973 Big Star concert on the recent box set ⭐️ | Best Price | ☀☀☀ http://total-leasing.net/?acv=Cialis-No-Prescription-India ☀☀☀. It solves the problem for you quickly. Lexapro Generic For Sale special reduced price. Search to find cheap brand or generic prescription drugs from a trusted online pharmacy. Where To Buy Cialis In Cebu at a discounted price from Doctor Solve. http://owngrownproductions.com/?alope=Viagra-Jelly-Cheap Lowest prices for Generic and Brand drugs. Bonus 10 free pills, discounts and FREE SHIPPING. Cheapest drugs online - buy and save money. Where to buy priligy in usa cialis professional generic priligy germany lasix online buy priligy online deutschland obagi tretinoin cream 0.1 buy online toradol migraine medicine. Medicine called toradol cialis professional rezeptfrei buy lasix 40 mg online Bactrim Usa tretinoin 0.1 cream buy crestor price per pill. Motilium Lactation Reviews http://pentian.com/?here=Clomid-Sale-Canada&1f2=69 buy prevacid online buy prevacid solutab online where can i buy prevacid otc buy prevacid online cheap Viagra Delivered In 24 Hours. buy prevacid 30 mg Can I Buy Augmentin Online Levaquin Price Per Pill | FREE SHIPPING 🔥 |. What You are Looking Best pill? ☀☀☀ Ampicillin Micromedex Online ☀☀☀,Save Up To 70% On Pills. Buy Now » Keep An Eye on the Sky, what’s remarkable is how little attention anyone in the audience is paying to the musical performance. Looking back on Big Star, they were clearly one of the best bands of their time, but they were playing a gig in front of almost nobody, getting a smattering of claps.

If the story had ended there, it would have been another sad tale about the woes of musicians. But then, the music of Big Star took on a life of its own. Other musicians starting playing Big Star songs or talking about how much they liked those Big Star records. The group suddenly had a cult following. One of its songs even ended up as the theme of a television show.

Some people dream of becoming rock stars. But for me, Big Star represents another sort of dream — the idea that your songs might live on even if your band breaks up, even if you never get onto the charts. The idea that a good song will win out in the end. You may not get rich and famous, but maybe your records will end up in the hands of someone who loves your music. It might take years or decades to happen, but a good song just won’t die.

Thanks for the music, Alex.

R.I.P. Alex Chilton

Alex Chilton, the great singer and songwriter who made three of my all-time favorite albums in the 1970s with Memphis power-pop band Big Star, died today. I discovered Big Star via cassette copies of those records back around 1987, when I was in college. It was around the time the Replacements recorded their tribute song, “Alex Chilton,” and the Bangles recorded their version of Big Star’s classic track “September Gurls” (one of the most perfect rock songs ever).

Big Star was one of those bands you heard other music fans talking about: “You’ve got to hear this… The LPs are rare, but I’ve got a copy on cassette.” And this was one of those cases when the band lived up to the mystique. All those songs on No. 1 Record and Radio City should have been hits, and then there was that strange, fractured, haunting dream of an album, Third/Sister Lovers.

I was lucky enough to see a few solo shows by Alex Chilton. He didn’t seem very interested in reliving his days in Big Star. He was doing his own, distinctly different solo music by this point, though he would play a few Big Star songs in concert, like “Holocaust” or “In the Street.” And what about his even earlier musical incarnation, the Box Tops, when he had a No. 1 hit, “The Letter,” when he was just a teen? Forget it. Chilton wasn’t going to play that. (He did a few shows now and then under the Box Tops name, but I never caught any of those performances.) Chilton just did what he wanted to.

The clamor for a Big Star reunion grew loud enough that Chilton and original drummer Jody Stephens teamed up with Posies members Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer to form a new lineup of the band in 1993. I saw their show at Metro in Chicago, which was pretty cool. It didn’t feel completely authentic (more like half reunion, half tribute band), but it was wonderful to hear Chilton singing those songs again, with Stephens’ perfect drum beats behind him.

Big Star recorded a new album a couple of years ago, In Space, which was a colossal disappointment for me. It’s hard for me to consider it a true part of the band’s canon. But all of those 1970s Big Star songs still get me, every time. Few other bands have ever crystallized so well the power of a well-written rock song: A riff that grabs you, lyrics that seem simple at first but reveal odd idiosyncrasies the more you listen, and the honest emotion of those vocals. Those first two albums are also masterpieces of sequencing. The songs follow one another in an order that feels like a great mix tape. (As for Third, the proper sequence is a matter of some mystery and debate, but the album still works beautifully in its various versions, a weirdly baroque and deeply personal drama.)

Big Star was scheduled to play this Saturday at South By Southwest. I’m not attending SXSW this year, and I was feeling sorry that I was going to miss this chance at seeing Big Star again. Tonight came the sad news that Chilton had died, apparently of a heart attack. So I’m playing some Big Star songs tonight and mourning the death of yet another great musician (coming so soon after Vic Chesnutt, Lhasa De Sela, Jay Reatard and Mark Linkous).

(Photo: Alex Chilton poses outside his home in New Orleans on Aug. 20, 1993. AP Photo/Dave Steuber, posted on the Memphis Commercial-Appeal Web site.)

The dream of Big Star


So many songs are recorded every year. Thousands of them are forgettable, but there are always some good, even great songs. Some of those great songs are heard by only a few people. For whatever reason, they don’t reach listeners. Sometimes record labels are to blame. Sometimes radio is the bad guy. Sometimes it just seems like fate. Some music gets noticed, some doesn’t. And unfortunately, good songs seem to disappear before you even get a chance to hear them.

Big Star’s entire recorded output in the 1970s was like that. Barely anyone heard this band while it was still together. It never had a hit record. Its albums sold a few thousand copies and went out of print. Listening now to a recording of a 1973 Big Star concert on the recent box set Keep An Eye on the Sky, what’s remarkable is how little attention anyone in the audience is paying to the musical performance. Looking back on Big Star, they were clearly one of the best bands of their time, but they were playing a gig in front of almost nobody, getting a smattering of claps.

If the story had ended there, it would have been another sad tale about the woes of musicians. But then, the music of Big Star took on a life of its own. Other musicians starting playing Big Star songs or talking about how much they liked those Big Star records. The group suddenly had a cult following. One of its songs even ended up as the theme of a television show.

Some people dream of becoming rock stars. But for me, Big Star represents another sort of dream — the idea that your songs might live on even if your band breaks up, even if you never get onto the charts. The idea that a good song will win out in the end. You may not get rich and famous, but maybe your records will end up in the hands of someone who loves your music. It might take years or decades to happen, but a good song just won’t die.

Thanks for the music, Alex.

R.I.P. Alex Chilton

Alex Chilton, the great singer and songwriter who made three of my all-time favorite albums in the 1970s with Memphis power-pop band Big Star, died today. I discovered Big Star via cassette copies of those records back around 1987, when I was in college. It was around the time the Replacements recorded their tribute song, “Alex Chilton,” and the Bangles recorded their version of Big Star’s classic track “September Gurls” (one of the most perfect rock songs ever).

Big Star was one of those bands you heard other music fans talking about: “You’ve got to hear this… The LPs are rare, but I’ve got a copy on cassette.” And this was one of those cases when the band lived up to the mystique. All those songs on No. 1 Record and Radio City should have been hits, and then there was that strange, fractured, haunting dream of an album, Third/Sister Lovers.

I was lucky enough to see a few solo shows by Alex Chilton. He didn’t seem very interested in reliving his days in Big Star. He was doing his own, distinctly different solo music by this point, though he would play a few Big Star songs in concert, like “Holocaust” or “In the Street.” And what about his even earlier musical incarnation, the Box Tops, when he had a No. 1 hit, “The Letter,” when he was just a teen? Forget it. Chilton wasn’t going to play that. (He did a few shows now and then under the Box Tops name, but I never caught any of those performances.) Chilton just did what he wanted to.

The clamor for a Big Star reunion grew loud enough that Chilton and original drummer Jody Stephens teamed up with Posies members Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer to form a new lineup of the band in 1993. I saw their show at Metro in Chicago, which was pretty cool. It didn’t feel completely authentic (more like half reunion, half tribute band), but it was wonderful to hear Chilton singing those songs again, with Stephens’ perfect drum beats behind him.

Big Star recorded a new album a couple of years ago, In Space, which was a colossal disappointment for me. It’s hard for me to consider it a true part of the band’s canon. But all of those 1970s Big Star songs still get me, every time. Few other bands have ever crystallized so well the power of a well-written rock song: A riff that grabs you, lyrics that seem simple at first but reveal odd idiosyncrasies the more you listen, and the honest emotion of those vocals. Those first two albums are also masterpieces of sequencing. The songs follow one another in an order that feels like a great mix tape. (As for Third, the proper sequence is a matter of some mystery and debate, but the album still works beautifully in its various versions, a weirdly baroque and deeply personal drama.)

Big Star was scheduled to play this Saturday at South By Southwest. I’m not attending SXSW this year, and I was feeling sorry that I was going to miss this chance at seeing Big Star again. Tonight came the sad news that Chilton had died, apparently of a heart attack. So I’m playing some Big Star songs tonight and mourning the death of yet another great musician (coming so soon after Vic Chesnutt, Lhasa De Sela, Jay Reatard and Mark Linkous).

(Photo: Alex Chilton poses outside his home in New Orleans on Aug. 20, 1993. AP Photo/Dave Steuber, posted on the Memphis Commercial-Appeal Web site.)