I'm sitting backstage at Mason Hall in New York, furiously scribbling on the back of a department store flier with a faltering Sharpie. It's 10 minutes before our sprawling lineup of indie rockers takes to the stage to interpret and pay tribute to Big Star's Third/ Sister Lovers. Chris Stamey, our maestro of sorts, has managed to assemble all these moving parts into a surprisingly smooth machine. Well, almost: We forgot to assign singing parts for the Big Star classic "Thank You Friends."
Stamey has a grand vision for the song. It will be an end-of-set "We Are the World"-style celebration, with Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo, Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub, Mike Mills of R.E.M., Matthew Sweet, Matt McMichaels, Tift Merritt and, well, me trading lines. In the hubbub of two days of marathon rehearsals, however, we've neglected to decide who sings what, and we're running out of time.
This, in a microcosm, has been Stamey's challenge all along, and it's one that he has attacked with single-minded passion. He amassed this impressive crew: R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, Brett Harris, Sidney Dixon, Will Rigby, Mitch Easter, Gordon Zacharias, an orchestra drawing from Lost in the Trees, Birds & Arrows, the Tomahawks and many more. He even recruited Big Star drummer Jody Stephens for these shows. With the recent passing of bandleader Alex Chilton and bassist Andy Hummel, Stephens carries the Big Star mantle alone with a quiet, generous dignity. It's a heavy responsibility. A band who influenced more records than it sold, Big Star continues to be the subject of fervent dedication on the part of rock fans and musicians alike.
So here we are: Over the course of six months, Stamey's turned us into a living statement of the material's importance and relevance. But now these various parts must merge again to reanimate the famously elusive, haunting and complex Third/ Sister Lovers. Last December, Triangle-area audiences witnessed the first of these performances in a two-night stand at Cat's Cradle (see "Chris Stamey revisits Big Star's Third with a few dozen friends" and "Big Star's Third, live"). Tonight marks a wider debut, in front of a thousand impatient New Yorkers. Inexplicably tight security at the venue—including metal detectors at the entrances—has delayed the show's start for over an hour, but our moment has finally arrived.
Now, if only I could find the singers to organize our closing tune. With the help of Mike Mills and Matthew Sweet, I scrawl out a chart of lyrics and mark it with singers' names. Kaplan wanders by. I tell him that he'll be singing the third line of each verse. "That won't work for me," he deadpans before breaking into a grin.
By the time "Thank You Friends" rolls around, the mood onstage is appropriately loose and celebratory. Meanwhile, someone has typed up my Sharpie scribbles into a three-page spreadsheet, laid out carefully across a music stand. We line up across the front of the stage, scanning the chart, hoping not to miss our cues. Stamey and Mitch Easter break into the ringing opening guitar chords. Stephens slams the opening drum fill, and we're off. Miraculously, each of us manages to scramble up to the mic in time for our lines. We grin all the way. After all, even if we had missed a line, we would have been honoring the fundamentally human attitude of Chilton's music, so long as we kept a sense of absurdity—and just let 'er rip for the sheer joy of it.