Written by 4:01 am Audiophile Music

Big Star’s Third Comes Alive

Mark Smotroff enjoys some complex, clean & well recorded indie rock…

 I am sorry that I could not travel last year to Southern California to see the performance of the all-star assemblage performing as Big Star’s Third, where they paid tribute to the original band called Big Star, playing favorite songs as well as the entire Third/Sister Lovers album. However, I am very happy to report that the concert — recorded at the appropriately named Alex Theater in Glendale — has been released on Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of the good folks at Concord Bicycle Music. Called Thank You Friends : Big Star’s Third Live… and More, the production values are very high on these discs with superb lighting and detailing on the video complemented by lovely natural sounding beautifully mixed audio, both in Stereo and DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 surround sound.  The set comes with two full CDs containing the full concert music. 

AR-BigStarsThirdLiveCDBluray225.jpgNow… Please don’t consider me lame for not dropping everything and going to see the Big Stars Third show down in LA when they were announced, given that I live only a handful of hours away up in San Francisco.  I could have done it had I purchased the tickets.  However,  life had other plans for me at that time and in fact I did get to see an earlier incarnation of this very same assemblage when they played here in San Francisco at The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in 2015. That event included the Kronos Quartet in the band who were conducted by done other than Van Dyke Parks! 

So I got a really great taste of where this project was going…

What’s nice about this final indie-rock superstar incarnation is that many of the inevitable rough edges in bringing this music to the concert stage have been polished to perfection over the ensuing year of touring. “Polished to perfection” may seem like an odd thing to say for music that is considered by many to be the rough ‘n tumble ground zero for all things indie rock — and many people like indie rock because it is raw. But that doesn’t mean it is simple music. There is a difference.  And, as anyone with even a little knowledge of what makes indie rock great to begin with will attest, its not all just three chord toss offs, kids… even the stuff that sounds simple and raw.  

The music Big Star created, much of it composed by group co-founder Alex Chilton, is quite complex.  

AR-BigStarsThirdLive225.jpgFor an easy visual example, when you watch the film, just take note of all the different guitarists playing on these songs and how many of them have “capos”  on their instruments positioned on different parts of the fretboard. This is how they deliver that distinctive Big Star sound live — from rich strummed acoustic country twang to the mandolin-like chiming sparkle up on top.  Much attention to detail in this showcase, kudos for which must go out to Musical Director and performer, Chris Stamey (he of The dBs fame) who pulled this whole labor of love together in the first place. There is even a full chamber orchestra conducted by Carl Marsh who wrote the original orchestrations for Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers album. 

Ultimately the performers make this show extra special, whether it’s the team of Robin Hitchcock with Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan or the joy on Mike Mills’ face as he sings “Jesus Christ” side-by-side modern-day-legendary saxophonist Ralph Carney. It’s so great to see The Posies’ Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer living out their dream and bringing this music made by their friend and hero Alex Chilton — and band co-founder Chris Bell, as well as surviving member Jody Stephens — to life.  Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Pat Sansone as well as pioneering indie rock producer / Lets Active founder Mitch Easter all add to the tasty brew along side some fine young voices out of the North Carolina music scene such as Skylar Gudasz, Djángo Haskins and Brett Harris. 

Perhaps my favorite moment from the show is on “The Ballad of El Goodo” where Semisonic’s Dan Wilson, flanked by The Posies, bring that classic tune to life in a way that sends a shudder down the spine. I hope they release this version as a single off the album as Wilson really nails it.  Bravo!  

I could go on about the individual performances but the bigger take away on a live concert production like this is that it Thank You Friends : Big Star’s Third Live… and More is an a outstanding introduction for anyone unfamiliar with the music of Big Star, particularly a new generation of indie and pop music fans who only may know the players on this album.

Keeping the indie rock fires shining on brightly… 

AR-BigStarsThirdLiveKronos225.jpgAnd that right there is the best summation of why you need to go out and get this lovely live recording called Thank You Friends : Big Star’s Third Live… and More.  It looks great. It sounds great.  It honors the music and the composers, presenting it with integrity and love. Infusing this music with the energy of a live performance brings it all up to another level.  Consider this release much in the way that Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds and SMiLE albums came to life when his spectacular group of support musicians were able to re-create the lush studio arrangements on stage in live concert experiences.  

It is a spectacular.  And what a spectacular experience that must have been for the musicians up there performing Big Star’s music.  One can only imagine but you can no doubt pick up on the reverence from their interview segments peppered throughout the film. 

What a joy it is for us to be able to watch Thank You Friends : Big Star’s Third Live… and More  in our homes as a reminder of the greatness of this band.  

Indeed, let Big Star show you the way…

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