Volumes have been written about star-crossed Memphis power-pop quartet Big Star, whose legend and influence burn brighter 40 years after their heyday than their commercial career did in the 1970s.
The Big Star Third Live concert on Wednesday at the Alex Theatre provided yet another chapter, paying tribute to the music with no small amount of reverence, if too little reverie.
The star-studded show featured the core of musicians who have been touring Big Star’s music for several years, including the quartet’s lone surviving original member, drummer Jody Stephens. The Posies’ Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow (who played in the second incarnation of the band with frontman Alex Chilton and Stephens on and off from 1993 until Chilton’s death in 2010) have played integral roles, along with Mike Mills of R.E.M., Chris Stamey of the dB’s and Mitch Easter of Let’s Active.
Joined by an impressive roster of special guests, they were charged Thursday with playing highlights of Big Star’s catalog and especially the notoriously difficult and emotionally oscillating “Third” album (also known as “Sister Lovers”) in its entirety. As one of those guests, Robyn Hitchock, said in a moment of levity, “‘Third’ is a weird album, but that’s why we love it.” Hitchcock fronted the ensemble during the cacophonous song “Downs,” which among other things featured Mills “playing” a basketball and Kaplan singing through a rolled-up magazine. “If it works you’ll be amazed,” Hitchcock deadpanned, “and if it doesn’t you won’t be surprised.”
The concert was staged by Big Star’s publishing company, Concord Bicycle Music, and as it was being recorded for a planned CD/DVD release next year, the proceedings felt more stiff than at the Big Star tribute in September 2014 at the Wilshire Ebell Theater, which featured some of the same players.
Yes, the between-song personnel and instrument changes caused things to drag, but, oh, the music.
The concert began with an eight-pack of songs from Big Star’s first two albums, with guest vocalists in fine, and often chilling, form. Wilco’s Pat Sansone set the tone with “I’m in Love With Girl” done solo acoustic. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy nailed “When My Baby’s Beside Me,” and Dan Wilson (Semisonic) proved clarion on “The Ballad of El Goodo” and then “Give Me Another Chance,” on which he dueted with the equally soaring Skylar Gudasz.
After an intermission, the group — which featured singer/emcee Django Haskins and the Kronos Quartet along with other guests such as Ira Kaplan (Yo La Tengo), Benmont Tench (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), Jessica Pratt, Brett Harris and Luther Russell — tackled “Third.” Carl Marsh, who did the album’s original orchestrations, was on hand to conduct.
Like the album — written by Chilton during a bleak period — the concert turned into a theater of mood swings, reaching its darkest when Haskins, backed by Peabody Southwell’s operatic wails, performed “Holocaust.”
Stephens left the drums to sing on the winsome “For You,” which he penned, and “Blue Moon.” Mills fronted the ensemble on the rousing “You Can’t Have Me,” and Tweedy on the rocking, pleading “Kizza Me.” The quieter moments were a chill-a-minute, though, especially Harris’ vocal turn on “Kanga Roo” and Pratt’s take on the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale.”
With most of “Third” out of the way, Mills delivered a highlight, a big, smiling take on “September Gurls,” before Hitchock took over for “The Letter,” Chilton’s hit with the Box Tops, mimicking the airplane noise in the song by using a blow-dryer. It was all hands onstage, everybody trading vocals, for the finale “Till the End of the Day,” which was followed by a one-song encore — Stephens and Russell teaming up on “Way Out West,” originally penned by Big Star bassist Andy Hummel.
When it was through, it was hard not to leave the theater humming the opening verse of “Nighttime,” sung sweetly earlier by Tweedy. “At nighttime, I go out and see the people / Air goes cool and hurrying on my way …”