Contending with legend is always a dangerous gambit, and few albums in the rock tradition possess a deeper lore or more singular pull then Big Star's half-abandoned, fully astonishing third album. First released in 1978, it's a harrowing and beautiful journey through the rapidly fracturing psyche of a young Alex Chilton. Originally tracked in 1974 but left to languish for years and relegated to piecemeal reissues, Third (alternatively known as Sister Lovers), largely junked the riotously infectious garage pop of the first two Big Star releases in favor of diaristic, slow-moving chamber folk so lovely and painful that it can be as difficult to listen to as it is impossible to turn off. Despite, or possibly because of the album's boundless influence, the recalcitrant Chilton never embraced Third during his lifetime, and the songs were largely left unperformed. Thank You, Friends: Big Star's Third Live...And More is a remarkably successful effort to redress that shortfall, a lovingly rendered document recorded last year at the Alex Theater in Glendale, California. The live recording features a cast of Big Star-besotted heavy hitters, including Mike Mills, Jeff Tweedy, Ira Kaplan, and band leader Chris Stamey.
The first of the two-disc set features a well-chosen amalgam of pre-Third Big Star tunes, including Tweedy's standout take on the deep-soul classic "When My Baby's Beside Me" and a stunning reading of the timeless teen-yearning ballad "Thirteen" by the ascendant Triangle-based star Skylar Gudasz. Those familiar with the Big Star story will be gratified by the touching two-song tribute to Chilton's band mate and sometime bete-noir, the late Chris Bell, which closes the concert's first half on a note of stage-setting poignancy.
It's a credit to Stamey and his assemblage that the second part of the program is not an uncomplicated listen. Third is a gorgeous album consisting of nearly unbearable psychic pain, and uncompromising vocal performances like those by Big Star drummer Jody Stephens on "Blue Moon" and Robyn Hitchcock on the art-damaged "Downs" pull no punches in representing the lacerating underbelly of Chilton's vision. Still, in keeping with the celebratory nature of the occasion, album closer "Thank You Friends" reimagines the original's bitter sarcasm as an appropriately affirming ensemble piece, conferring the joy of Chilton's genius on a rapturous audience. While Chilton himself may never have made peace with the haunted corridors of Third, this wondrous tribute finally brings his tortured, humane vision to the stage in a manner he would have surely—if perhaps begrudgingly—appreciated.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Next Levels."