Written by 5:00 am Audiophile Music

Big Star Live At Last On Video

Mark Smotroff digs the new Big Star DVD for all the right reasons.

Would it be enough to make you want to buy a DVD of an artist if the primary impetus is to witness the joy and wonderment on said artist’s face up close and personal, performing alive without a net?

BigStarLiveCover.jpgWould it matter to you if said artist had once been hugely popular, then became massively influential to several generations of future performers?

Would it matter if I reminded you that you will never get to see said artist performing live like this (at least in our current time and space continuum within the universe) because he passed away in 2010?

I certainly hope it matters to you because that is pretty much the case with regards to the new Big Star Live In Memphis DVD, out now from Omnivore.

Don’t buy this DVD looking for spectacular sound and image. Don’t buy this DVD expecting a groundbreaking production and a fancy stage show. If you do, you will be disappointed.


Do buy Big Star Live In Memphis for the shear joy of seeing a fine performance by a hugely important rock band that many of us never got to see even when they reformed and toured again in the early 1990s.

Do buy Big Star Live In Memphis for the stellar songs and heartfelt performances.

Do buy Big Star Live In Memphis to see and hear a live version of Big Star co-founder Chris Bell’s solo masterpiece “I Am The Cosmos” sung by Jon Auer of The Posies (who, with Ken Stringfellow, became crucial members of the reformed/reinvented Big Star).

Do buy Big Star Live In Memphis to see and hear drummer Jody Stephens sing fab tunes like “Way Out West.”

But most importantly…

DO buy Big Star Live In Memphis to see the joy and wonderment on the face of Big Star leader and co-founder Alex Chilton, who seems to be genuinely enjoying himself, grooving on playing his music before an adoring audience and clearly getting off on the vibe.

HappyAlex.jpgThat is reason enough to want to see and own this video, because we get to see Chilton as a performer and consummate entertainer clearly doing what he likes doing in front of a sizable crowd. Watching this, one can’t help but wonder how things might have been different had Big Star’s first albums become big hits instead of falling victim to the star-making machinery and whims of an indifferent music industry of the mid-1970s.

Honestly, I never stopped to consider what a great guitarist Chilton was, but he pulls of his solos and those kinda complex-ish riffs so effortlessly. One is also reminded that this fellow was in fact a seasoned pro who had spent years touring as the lead behind the Box Tops in the 1960s (“The Letter,” “Cry Like A Baby”) as well as dedicating the first half of the ’70s trying to get Big Star off the ground.

]]>Since this is Audiophile Review, you are probably wondering what specifically I don’t like about the sound and visuals on this new DVD release. It is not that I don’t like it. It is just that Big Star Live In Memphis is a relatively raw archival document made of a particular time and place. So I am setting realistic expectations that this isn’t really an audiophile release. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy it, especially if you are a fan of the band.

BigStarLive.jpgIt sounds pretty decent in stereo with its 16-bit/48-kilohertz LPCM soundtrack; it is serviceable, sounding kind of like a monitor mix. Again, that is not the point of a release like this, so please don’t judge it on its fidelity.

The video looks good on close-ups, but the reality is the image quality isn’t super-sharp, especially on today’s high-resolution big-screen TVs and such.

It is a document and, in words from the website of Ardent Music (home of Ardent Records, the label and studio Big Star recorded with back in the day):

“The filmmakers did everything they could to edit around the worst problems… We’re glad to be able to present this footage and recording to you as an historical document of Big Star’s homecoming gig, and are thankful that it existed in good enough shape to construct what you’ll see and hear. But be aware, there are audio and video issues that were impossible to correct.”

One of those issues (for me, at least) has nothing to do with the band, the performance, the video production quality or anything like that. I will also qualify that what I am about to say about a particular sound is purely my personal preference (some of you may like this sound!). But there is this massive reverb effect (probably “gated”) applied to all the drums for this show (decidedly not the sound heard on Big Star’s official 1993 live CD release Columbia). I suspect that decision to add the big drum effect was driven by whomever was mixing sound in the club that evening; it was a common practice in certain venues where the sound engineers had a certain sound “dialed in” for the venue. So as a band, you would show up, set up your gear and they mic everything for you. By the time you get to soundcheck, you can’t really say much about the mix because you are dealing with other things and just worrying about playing a good show. The problem for me, as an artist — and I have experienced this even with my own bands over the years — is that the sound the club applies mades your music sound like everything else from the period. It is a huge sound that is as dated today as Auto-Tune will be sometime in the future.

Alex225.jpgPerhaps it wouldn’t even gnaw at me much if the drums were down a little lower in the mix, with more balance on the guitars and vocals. But that is not the case here. Further evidence of the archival nature of this video. As you will read in the enclosed booklet about the concert, we should be thankful that this video came together at all and survived the 20 years of storage in a closet.

All that said, on the plus side, Big Star Live In Memphis does become very much a showcase for Jody Stephens’ fabulous drumming.

That is my only heads-up reality check to you, Dear Readers, about Big Star Live In Memphis. Just setting realistic expectations here, folks.

Again, you should buy Big Star Live In Memphis not because you are seeking an audiophile presentation of some of the finest and most influential indie rock ever.

Buy it because — and this is especially true for those of us who never got to see the band live — you want to see Alex Chilton bare his heart and soul for us as if it might be his last show ever. In someways, it was. And now we get to rejoice in that performance forever.

Ken225.jpgAs Ray Davies wrote so many years ago, “celluloid heroes never really die.”

Thank you, Alex. Thank you, Jody. And thank you, Jon and Ken, for helping Big Star’s light shine on brightly for the ages.

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