“Sometimes I can't help but worship you
I love you and all the things that you do”
I love you and all the things that you do”
Tackling Big Star is a feat in itself, tackling Big Star’s third album 3rd/ Sister Lovers is something even Alex Chilton had difficulty with. 3rd/ Sister Lovers was an album created in a time when Big Star was effectively dissolving, and the album clearly reflects the time. The intricacies of each song transformed the power pop group into more of an orchestrated event with backing strings and wind instruments. The wide range of 3rd / Sister Lovers sets it apart from the other Big Star albums by tackling psychedelia with “Kangaroo”, heart retching remorse with “Holocaust”, and sophisticated lyrics of pop ballads that were reminiscent of a band on the brink of collapse.
3rd / Sister Lovers was never performed by the original Big Star as its release came four years after the band had gone its separate ways. Following in the wake of both Chilton and Hummel’s death, 3rd / Sisters Lovers was finally slated to be performed at a special event called Strike It, Noel. Jody Stephens and an All Star band consisting of Mike Mills (R.E.M.), Mitch Easter (Let’s Active), Chris Stamey (the dB’s), and Jeff Crawford &; Charles Cleaver (the Tomahawks), Lost in Trees members, and members from the NC Symphony fit the bill on Thursday night at Cats Cradle.
Having gone to hundreds of shows at the Cats Cradle in Carrboro, I was very surprised at the set up for Strike It, Noel. The stage in front of me was riddled with instruments with barely enough space to move around freely. In addition to the menagerie of instruments there was a sitting area on the floor space in front of the stage. At half past eight the entire section was filled with middle-aged men and women sitting patiently for the opening band to start performing.
As Birds and Arrows opened up the event, I came to the realization that I was standing out in the crowd as one of the only college aged kids in a venue that typically houses my kind. But as the music started I quickly became engulfed in the sweet melodies of Birds and Arrows. Their distinct Appalachian harmonies were accompanied by a cello, which often reminded me of sweet and somber scenes in cinema. More importantly, the livelihood and stage presence they brought lightened the mood amongst the crowd. Jokes about releasing a fragrance to be paired with their new album sparked chuckles, especially in the row of women to my left all holding wine. Although I enjoyed the music, I felt increasingly out of place. It wasn’t until Birds and Arrows ended their set with a song about the rock quarry that I had frequented as a child. The vibrant lyrics and sweet melodies left me satisfied and comfortable to my surroundings.
A busy scuttle towards the instruments ensued as the musicians entered the stage. There were as many as twenty people on the stage at one time, carefully placed in between red giant floating balloons each branded with three stars. Soon an aged Jody Stephens welcomed the crowd. His face was defined and I watched as he carefully put on his black drumming gloves and made his way toward the back of the stage.
The concert began with a Nature Boy excerpt that led into a Mike Mills led “Kizza Me”. The immediate intensity of the string section and the backing band screamed professionalism. Every note had been practiced and the entire production was polished. Before I could get acclimated to the big sounds of Big Star, “O Dana” filled the small venue with a full sound I thought was not possible in the tiny venue of Cats Cradle.
Vocally, each track was a little different but had a distinct Chilton-like sound and delivery.
|All Photos by Kevin Norris|
Another shining moment was shown by the amazing arrangement of “Jesus Christ”. Mike Mills jokingly stated that this was the time for a “Math rock moment” as the quirky introduction began. Beautiful sleigh bells and an impressive saxophone performance brought the merriment and cheer of the season.
After a slow, sad rendition of “Big Black Car”, the All-Star band stumbled through the introduction of “Strike It, Noel” stopping a few chords into the song to make sure that the song was close to perfection. Chris Stamey said in jest that the album “is a loose record, [the performance] could be loose too” and “we didn’t want you to think that this is on tape”. The second take of “Strike It, Noel” began in three- part harmony led by Stu McLamb who delivered an amazing vocal performance that sounded strikingly similar to Chilton.
Django Haskins vocal performance of “Holocaust” was a key highlight of the show. The crowd was extremely attentive as the orchestra filled up the space with a sense of loss that was overpowering. Chris Stamey kept mouthing “Wow” and the heavy presence of the song materialized in goose bumps all over my body. The sense of abandonment in the lyrics drew power as the orchestra boiled over with intensity. Effectively the song served as a eulogy for the late Chilton as people to my right and left wept quietly to themselves. The performance ended with the entire crowd on their feet, where they remained for the rest of the show.
The All Star band wasted no time before divulging into “You Can’t Have Me” where it was clear to see that Jody Stephens can still rock out on the drums. The high-energy ensemble ended in an impressive drum and saxophone solo that left you wanting more. Other key highlights included the Rosebuds rendition of Lou Reed’s “Femme Fatale”, a quirky basketball performance by Ivan Howard on “Downs”, and another vocal performance by Jody Stephens on “Blue Moon”, as well as an impressive take on “Kangaroo” complete with cowbell and tablas.
The encore was a mini concert in itself with an amazingly appropriate “Thank you, Friends”, a high energy “September Gurls”, all culminating with the Ray Davies take of “Till the End of the Day”. Before the band performed their last piece, Mike Mills jokingly said to the crowd “If we’re gonna be bad, be bad loud”. The performance of “Till the End of the Day” was reminiscent of the big bands of the seventies. Big Star may have never established themselves in the popular charts, but based on the performances at Strike It, Noel it is clear that they deserved it.
As the crowd left the venue, Jody Stephens approached the stage once again garnishing a glass of red wine. Jody was moved to speak, “Alex’s presence was in the room tonight, with out him…none of this would have happened”. A smile drawn from ear to ear was plastered on his face as he graciously held a toast to the crowd and the late Alex Chilton. Finally, here was an ending that Big Star deserved.
->Nature Boy excerpt
Big Black Car
Stroke It, Noel
You Can’t Have Me
Thank You, Friends
You and Your Sister
I am the Cosmos
Give Me Another Chance
Till the End of the Day
If you are in the Carrboro, Chapel Hill area please go out and see this show tonight! For tickets click here. Also, be on the lookout for the upcoming Big Star documentary.