More than 30 musicians crowded the undersized Cat's Cradle stage. They had gathered to perform an orchestral version of a fractured masterpiece known as Third/Sister Lovers, the final album by beguiling Tennessee band Big Star. Musically ambitious and logistically complex, the 2010 production was willed into being by Chris Stamey, who'd collaborated with Big Star's Alex Chilton in the 1970s. Like a benevolent Svengali, Stamey amassed the myriad resources needed to recast and restage his mentor's most baroque creation, down to its last haunting lurch of feedback.
The performance resonated with the musicians and the full rock-club house alike, but the feeling that all this effort had been a beautiful one-off presided for many. But on Friday, as part of the Southern Folklife Collection's quarter-century celebration, the show returns to Cat's Cradle after traveling to three continents, from The Barbican in London and Gramercy Park in New York to Australia's Sydney Festival.
"Everything about Big Star is unlikely," says Mitch Easter, who has been handling guitar duties since the show's inception. "It just continues."
Performing albums in their entirety is nothing new, as more bands are willing to revisit a recorded career high point for an audience that craves it. But this is a rather unlikely journey for a painstakingly assembled re-creation of a record that seemed stillborn on arrival in 1974, an album often described as the soundtrack to a nervous breakdown.
"There's almost no era in which that record had a chance, except for maybe right now," Easter says. "I'm just always amazed that the shows happen and that people show up to 'em."
Throughout Third, very bleak spaces are broken by glimpses of pure sunlight, most often provided by violin, viola and cello. On the song "For You," Big Star drummer and lone surviving member Jody Stephens used "Eleanor Rigby"-style string quartet accompaniment, prompting Chilton to make strings a crucial component of Third. Those strings make the record singular. They make the full-length performances stirring. Easter, for instance, says he got chills the first time he attended rehearsal with just the strings.
"I'd heard those parts a million times but I hadn't heard 'em in 3-D played by humans," he says. "The beauty is there, but that brings it forward. So I think when you hear that for real—and it's not an orchestra coming out of some black digital keyboard on the side of the stage, but it's really a bunch of string players and a bassoon—that's amazing. You don't hear that very often in a rock context."
R.E.M.'s Mike Mills, who's been a member of the troupe since the first shows, concurs: "It probably wouldn't be worth doing without the orchestra. That orchestra is what makes it so moving and so powerful."
The orchestral element is one reason the show shifts personnel with every new venue. Local players are enlisted to provide brass, wind and string parts. And then there are guest vocalists, celebrities who share a deep affection for Big Star. In Chicago last year, those guests included members of Califone, The Mekons and Urge Overkill. In London, Third featured Robyn Hitchcock and members of Teenage Fanclub and Hot Chip. Earlier this year, in Australia, Cat Power and Kurt Vile lent their voices.
"It was very cool but not surprising that the strength of that record carries all the way across the ocean," says Mills. "Alex's sort of desperation and anger and all of that: I think everyone can feel that and relate to it. I think it comes down to the honesty with which it was recorded. And I don't mean honesty in a sincere, caring way. I mean honesty in a fuck-it-all kind of way, which was how Alex was feeling."
The record's exact orchestration adds a rigor to the proceedings that does not favor unscripted sounds live, but there are some moments that cannot be completely micromanaged. The score includes instances of improvisation, not only the off-kilter percussion on "Downs" which Ken Stringfellow achieves by bouncing a basketball, but more prominent elements, too.
"The guitar on the Third record is so loose and off the cuff it's kind of impossible to replicate," says Easter. "There's a sort of super-high-level tribute band kind of guitar player that could learn every note of it, but I can't. I just have to try to get across the vibe."
By and large, however, this is a precision vehicle, imbuing the proceedings with a touch of formalism. That is the show's only deviance from the spirit of the original. Chaotic rockers like "Kizza Me" and "You Can't Have Me" are bookended by periods of respectful silence.
"It's a little disconcerting," offers Mills with a laugh, "but when you know that it comes from a place of respect and not boredom, then it feels OK."
The set list has recently swelled to include Big Star's gleaming, hook-laden debut, #1 Record, also performed in its entirety. That addition required Jody Stephens to get reacquainted with songs he hadn't considered for a long time.
"I just started going over 'My Life Is Right' from our first album," he says. "I was 17, I think, when I played those drums, so it was kind of a nice look back at myself at that age—and Chris and Andy and Alex."
Friday's reprise arrives as part of the 25th-anniversary celebration for UNC's Southern Folklife Collection, an academic enterprise that tries to document culture as people experience it. For Big Star, a band whose Memphis roots were in its sound as well as its psyche, the inclusion within the scope of Southern culture makes perfect sense.
What's more, as a result of shining performances by local musicians such as Brett Harris, Skylar Gudasz, and Charles Cleaver, Big Star Third Live serves as a compelling advertisement for the rich musical heritage of the state. That's another mission of the Southern Folklife Collection.
"Everywhere we've gone, we've heard the refrain of, 'How come everyone from North Carolina sings and plays great?'" says Stamey.
Without the driving force of Stamey, the project would never have happened. All the participants are quick to credit his organizational and musical skills, his tenacity and his selflessness. But Stamey is quick to credit others—from Frank Heath, whose staging of an Elliott Smith tribute inspired the idea, to New Music Raleigh, whose conductor Shawn Galvin has often overseen the show's critical orchestral component.
"It's sort of egoless," says Gudasz, whose version of Chilton's exquisite "Thirteen" is one of every performance's show-stoppers. "There's moments onstage when the orchestra's playing and everyone's singing that you really do get carried away by the songs and how beautiful they are."
That same sense strikes Stephens, 40 years after he laid down the drum parts that shape the backbone of Third.
"When I hear these people deliver it and hear the strings accompany them," he says, "there's a real sense of magic. Music touches people in different ways, and that's kind of the thing you really can't explain. It certainly has a lot to do with Alex's voice and the material and the honesty of the material—honesty endures, I guess."