The Ex, a Dutch art-punk band that’s been around since 1979, returned to Chicago for the first time in four years, playing on Thursday, Oct. 22, at Lincoln Hall. As a bonus, the band included one of Chicago’s leading jazz players, Ken Vandermark, on saxophone. The Ex sounded as strong as ever, with jagged chords colliding over strange rhythms. Why isn’t this band more famous?
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.