Chris Stamey is preparing to lead two dozen musicians, including a string section and a rotating cast of vocalists, through the first live and fully orchestrated re-creation of Big Star's third album. They'll all do it again the next evening. When this two-night stand unfolds, Stamey might hear, amid the other gorgeous sounds, echoes of moments that stretch across almost 35 years—events involving fruitful introductions and big ideas.
It was late 1975 or early '76 when Stamey first heard Third. (Its original title was Sister Lovers, but it'd be years until the album was reissued under that name.) He scored a bootleg tape before the record was released. "My raggedy cassette seemed like a bridge to a dimly glimpsed world of dreams," Stamey recalls.
It also felt like a bridge between the rock music he played at night in the seminal Southern-scene band Sneakers and the "tentative modern classical music" he wrote during the day at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hill Hall. "The string harmonics in 'Nighttime' sounded like Ravel and George Crumb to me," says Stamey. On the other end was "Kanga Roo"—for Stamey, "shocking cowbell" and "flying saucer feedback."
"Lyrically, it was compelling as well," he adds. "'Thank you, friends, for making this all so probable' was a fave."
And so the memories begin.
It was 1977, after Stamey moved to New York City, when he got to meet the chief architect of Third, Alex Chilton. He had to put together a band to back Chilton for a New York appearance. When Chilton flew up for the show, he and Stamey hit it off. It'd be more than a year before Chilton returned to Memphis. The pair worked up some songs; playing as many tunes from Third as from the first two Big Star records, Chilton hit the Northeast club circuit with Stamey on bass and the Bowery's then-fledgling CBGB as frequent home away from home.
Those Big Star records definitely influenced Stamey. He points to "Moving in Your Sleep," his favorite dB's track, as evidence. But his time playing with and learning from Chilton in person had the more direct, and lasting, impact. "He'd take me into the studio and tell me the whys and wherefores of what he was doing, how to abuse a compressor and how to coordinate chaos and exactitude. He used to say that he wanted to chain a monkey to a synthesizer and put food on the knobs to get just the right flavor," Stamey says. "Contrary to the old saw, I have always found that meeting my musical heroes has been highly rewarding. Alex was the best of them all."
It was 2005 when Frank Heath at Cat's Cradle asked Stamey to help him put on an evening of Elliott Smith music. Calling on some of the studio musicians with whom he regularly recorded, including Tyson Rogers, John Heitzenrater, Jeff Crawford and the members of Roman Candle, Stamey helped Heath assemble a top-shelf band for the occasion. "We felt the evening was a great success, and highly musical, even though Elliott's songs can be complex and demanding," Stamey says. "It felt good to do something as a community as well, the old 'let's put on a play and save the school' thing!" Duly inspired, Stamey was ready for the next such adventure: a celebration of Big Star's Third.
Stamey, of course, wanted to do it right, and the full effect would entail all the original orchestral parts. After tracking down Carl Marsh, the person responsible for the bulk of the record's string and wood parts, he learned that most of the original scores were not available. Marsh did offer to rewrite the parts, but that would involve the daunting task of getting the original multitracked recordings. The idea stalled, but not for lack of good intentions.
It was 2010—February, to be exact—when Heath called Stamey to say that he really wanted to proceed with the Big Star show they'd talked about. With that, things began to fall into place. "I spoke to John Fry at Ardent, who said that he'd support the idea as long as the band was into it, and that he'd make some of the original multitracks available so that we could accurately rewrite the written music and also decipher some of the unwritten parts," says Stamey. The second jump-start came when Big Star drummer (and Ardent Studios manager) Jody Stephens agreed to play drums at the event.
Chilton and Stephens were preparing for the Big Star reunion show at South By Southwest, so Stephens suggested that Stamey make the trip to continue the discussion face-to-face. "Although I had decided to abstain from Austin this year, I changed my plans," says Stamey. "The night before I left, I heard the overwhelmingly sad news about Alex's fatal heart attack, and it all changed."
Stamey hesitated to move ahead in the wake of Chilton's passing and the many tribute shows that followed. Encouraged by the enthusiasm of Chilton's widow, Laura, and the continued interest of Stephens and Ardent, plans for the show progressed. "Mike Mills, who loves this music and grew up with it just like I did, jumped on board to play bass," says Stamey of the R.E.M. bassist, citing one of the many people who kept momentum moving. "Another big thing was getting involved with Ari Picker and Lost in the Trees on the project. He really jumped in with both feet and partnered with me on this. I could go on and on, really—it's something that wants to happen." (See "Helpful constellation" for the full list of musicians.)
Making it happen has meant some overtime: Stamey talks of the challenges of marshaling 20-plus musicians and of the various section rehearsals. Stephens has been practicing almost every day for the last month by himself in Memphis. Stamey has even gone back to school to study instrumentation and learn the music notation software Sibelius—all for the cause.
"We have been trying to create a concert piece that can have a life in years to come, trying to keep the spirit of the music and make it come across with the right emotions live," says Stamey. "There's something about this record that connects with my generation, and apparently many generations."
Chris Stamey has a lot of friends to thank for making the two-night re-creation of Big Star's Third so probable. Here's the cast, which includes members of R.E.M., The Love Language, The Rosebuds, The Old Ceremony, Megafaun, Bowerbirds, Hindugrass, Birds and Arrows, Lost in the Trees and the North Carolina Symphony.
Singers: Brad and Phil Cook, Kelly Crisp, Sidney Dixon, Brett Harris, Django Haskins, Ivan Howard, Stu McLamb, Matt McMichaels, Mike Mills and Jody Stephens
Guitarists: Mitch Easter and Chris Stamey
Electric bass: Mike Mills
Double bass: Jeff Crawford
Drums: Jody Stephens
Percussion: Will Rigby
Piano, accordion, and R.E.M.-loaned Mellotron: Charles Cleaver
Strings: Karen Galvin (violin), Leah Gibson (cello), Andriana Markana (viola), Rachel Rollins (violin), Josh Starmer (cello), Jenavieve Varga (violin) and Kathryn Wyatt (viola)
Brass and woodwinds: John Heitzenrater (bassoon and tabla), Seamus Kenney (trombone), Lisa Lachot (flute and sax), Emma Nadeau (French horn) and Michael Stipe (trumpet)
Conductor: Ari Picker