Big Star gets a reverent tribute from a constellation of talent at Wild Honey benefit concert

Jody Stephens at the Alex Theatre (Photo by Stevo Rood / ARood Photo)

The biggest star of Saturday’s Wild Honey Foundation concert at the Alex Theatre was Big Star’s “#1 Record,” released 50 years ago and still unleashing its influence on guitar bands everywhere. A constellation of other stars — from the foundation’s musical army, the Wild Honey Orchestra, to a parade of special guests — made Wild Honey’s first benefit since March 2020 a memorable one.

Organizers certainly couldn’t have chosen a better record for the Wild Honey Orchestra’s return. Big Star is practically bred in the bones of the collective, as some of the players cut their teeth in the pre-punk 1970s. Big Star, led by Chris Bell and former Box Top Alex Chilton, inspired the kind of fandom that was something of a secret club, as both their albums, “#1 Record” (1972) and “Radio City” (1973), suffered from distribution and promotional problems. It wouldn’t be a surprise to find that many at the Alex Theatre on Saturday (like this writer) found their first Big Star album in the cut-out bin at Woolworth’s for 75 cents.

Saturday’s special guests included three musicians with a connection to Big Star or Alex Chilton: Jody Stephens, Big Star’s drummer and lone surviving original member; Jon Auer, who played in the 1990s reincarnation of the band; and Chris Stamey, who before forming the dBs played bass in Alex Chilton’s post-Big Star band.

Before the show proper, Paul Rock, the Wild Honey Foundation’s guiding light, talked about his son, Jacob, who is autistic, non-verbal, with severe motor planning and digestive issues, and the impetus for Rock’s connection with the Autism Healthcare Collaborative (the night’s beneficiary). The first piece of music was the 5th movement of “Unforgettable Sunrise,” a symphony Jacob wrote with the help of Wild Honey’s musical director, Rob Laufer. It was something of a revelation: If he were a trained musician, Jacob would be a student of Bach, Stravinski, Gershwin, minimalist composers and prog rock.

The Big Star portion of the evening followed the usual Wild Honey template: The first set performed the entire “#1 Record,” the second took on “Radio City” and “Third” (released in 1978, long after the band dissolved), plus a few songs from Chris Bell’s solo album, “I Am the Cosmos.”

It was, for Wild Honey, a relatively compact affair, only 2 1/2 hours (previous shows have run upwards of four hours). Unlike past shows, there were no introductions giving a thumbnail history of the songs, and for an evening that included nearly a dozen singers and multiple instrument changes, it ran remarkably smoothly.

And the music was up to Wild Honey’s usual high standards. Highlights included Susanna Hoffs’ tender, aching performances of “The Ballad of El Goodo” and Chris Bell’s “You and Your Sister” (but not “September Gurls,” which was a hit for the Bangles); singer-songwriter Skylar Gudasz’s winsome “Thirteen” (probably Chilton’s prettiest melody); Auer’s tremulous “Back of a Car;” Chris Price and former Wilco member Pat Sansone’s urgent “Don’t Lie To Me;” and Brett Harris and R.E.M.’s Mike Mills’ bumptious “In The Street.” The Lemon Twigs, easily the youngest musicians on the stage, brought some tousled rock ’n’ roll energy with “Got Kinda Lost” and “Life is White.” Stephens’ performed “India Song,” a sweet slice of Ray Davies-styled whimsy, and “Blue Moon,” from the haunted, hollowed-out, edge-of-a-nervous-breakdown “Third.”

The songs were performed with a loving, but not slavish, respect for the music. The musicians, especially Stamey, who had a broad smile on his face whenever he was onstage, seemed to be having a grand time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the large number of North Carolinians onstage, the songs leaned in a country-folk direction, especially in the background, and harmony vocals.

The only cavil, and it’s a minor one, is the finale. Stephens did a fine job singing “Way Out West,” but it felt anticlimactic, especially when Big Star has the perfect song to send the audience home, “Thank You Friends.” But even with that, Wild Honey’s tribute to Big Star was a wonderful way for many to return to live music, and for a good cause.

Photos by Stevo Rood / ARood Photo