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

IMG_3263

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

Anitbalas at Park West

Security, the new record by Antibalas – or if you prefer, Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra – is one of my favorites of 2007 so far. Those who say the studio records by Antibalas are lacking something compared to the concerts don’t know what they’re talking about. To me, the record’s a perfect distillation of all the great sounds that make up this band – the punchy horns, those cool organ and electric piano sounds, the fabulous rhythm section’s grooves, the chant-like choruses. The songs tend to be long, and they go in unusual directions. I get the feeling that the musicians in Antibalas are giving in to the logic of the music. They’re letting it lead them wherever it goes without worrying about whether it will fit within traditional musical boundaries.

That said, they are also great in concert. I just don’t see the two experiences as appreciably different. Not surprisingly, Antibalas put on an exciting live show last night at Park West. It was great fun to see Duke Amayo leaping around exuberantly during the parts of the songs where he sings, then hurrying over to the congas to play his percussion parts. And Stuart Bogie looked like he was having just as much fun conducting the orchestra in between blasts on his sax. Those horns sound so strong – there’s a strong jazz influence on this group, though I’m guessing jazz purists wouldn’t think of it as jazz. Most of it is composed, though there are some improvisational jams, and the horn arrangements are built around angular melodies you don’t usually hear in jazz. Of course, it all sounds an awful lot like the music of Afrobeat founder Fela Kuti and his drumming protege, Tony Allen, but that’s all right with me. Fela’s music has really become more like a genre than a specific artist’s style, and Antibalas does an amazing job of bringing that music into the future, putting its own distinctive stamp on it, including a bit of a Latin vibe. Long live Antibalas!

…One more thought: It was a very young crowd at the the Antibalas show last night, including a fair number of kids who looked like jam-band fans, judging from the scraggly bears and other accoutrements. That left me wondering … just how did these people discover the music of Antibalas and get into it? It’s not exactly getting played on the radio, as far as I know. I’ve never been a big fan of bands in the vein of Phish, et al, but I do like the concept of long improvisational jams when they’re done right, so if people who like jam bands are discovering Afro Beat, that’s very cool as far as I’m concerned.

See my photos of Antibalas.

Neko Case at Park West

I reviewed this March 29 concert for the Daily Southtown, so for the most part, I’ll just refer you to my review, which is below. It was an excellent show, vintage Neko, with most of Fox Confessor and a good selection of older songs, plus some of the wackiest banter I’ve heard yet between Neko, Hogan and Rauhouse. Lots of talk about Peeps and badger musk. The opening set by Matt Pond PA was pretty good, too, followed by an odd interlude featuring an overhead projector and two people drawing on transarent slides.

Here’s the Southtown review…

Neko Case sprinkles her concerts with wickedly funny, ribald and downright odd stage banter, but all of that silliness vanishes when she is in the throes of singing. Just about every song during her concert Thursday at Chicago’s Park West had at least one moment when Case arched back her head, squeezed her eyes shut and belted out notes that were bold as well as beautiful. The audience falls silent at these moments, and it’s hard not to sense a feeling of awe sweep over the crowd.

For more than a year now, Case has been touring behind her album, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, and Thursday’s concert — the second of three nights at Park West — did not offer any new material. Case was not lacking for good songs, though. Fox Confessor was one of 2006’s best records, showcasing Case’s development as a writer of sophisticated words, melodies and arrangements.

If anything, the Fox Confessor songs sounded fuller and more assured than they did when Case played with largely the same band in concert a year ago. In the studio versions, these songs feature many little flourishes, but the touring band lacks piano, violin, dulcimer and some of the other instruments Case used on the record. With some experience on the road, Case’s band now knows how to simulate that mysterious country-gothic atmosphere with a few plucks on the banjo and a thump of the stand-up bass.

Two of Case’s old pals from the Chicago alt-country scene, Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor, who are fine vocalists in their own right, sang harmonies Thursday. More than just singing simple “oohs” and “aahs,” Hogan and O’Connor often added complex gospel-style counterpoints to Case’s songs.

In between her dramatic and often thrillingly evocative songs, Case proved that she is no diva by shifting into silly mode and telling several strange jokes involving Peeps candy. (Her fantasy of her own funeral: “Hot-glue-gun Peeps all over me.”)

In the middle of one of her most haunting songs, “Wish I Was the Moon,” Case accidentally continued singing at a point when a pedal-steel guitar solo was supposed to begin. Embarrassed at her gaffe, she mimicked sticking a knife into her stomach. Hogan walked over and hugged Case consolingly, doing a little dance with her in the middle of the song. Of course, it was a forgivable mistake — the sort of moment that makes Case seem more like a regular person, in spite of her extraordinary talent.

See my photos of Neko Case (and a couple of Matt Pond PA).

Madeleine Peyroux at Park West

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