by Lisa Sorg
When Big Star’s Sister Lovers was released in 1978, it was a particularly pale time for adventurous music to find commercial success. Against the backdrop of banalities such as the BeeGees and disco, emerged Sister Lovers, in reissues known as Big Star’s Third. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s considered a hallmark of pop music whose expansive musical terrain included thickets of orchestration, plateaus of sparseness and cliffs of psychedelic disintegration. Its emotional landscape was no less vast—brooding, exuberant and tender. After one listen, you knew you had been psychically reassembled.
This is the expectation, or perhaps the baggage, that I brought to the fully orchestrated live premiere of Big Star’s Third, which included nearly 30 performers, under the guidance of musical director Chris Stamey, who played with Big Star’s Alex Chilton in the late 1970s.
This was no small task, and yet the ensemble perfectly captured the essence of a definitive, difficult record. Chilton’s—and by extension, Big Star’s—songs are challenging, requiring those who tackle them to be rhythmically doublejointed, like a gymnast working out on the parallel rails. The songs demand equal melodic and harmonic agility (some might add a leap of faith) to navigate the unexpected chord changes and unconventional turns and still make music you can sing to.
Which brings us to the vocals: Songs like “Kangaroo” and “Jesus Christ” can stretch the limitations of non-castratos (Chilton’s voice often frayed at the top end), but Stu McLamb, Matt McMichaels, Brett Harris and Django Haskins almost always reached the unreachable. Three-part harmonies buoyed “O Dana,” while on “Holocaust,” Sidney Dixon’s chilling harmonies sounded as if a theremin had walked onstage.
And to hear Big Star drummer Jody Stephens sing the gorgeous ballads “For You” (which he wrote) and “Blue Moon” was to hear love at its most frail and vulnerable.
The original versions relied heavily on strings, horns and keyboards, which seemed to float overhead. Last night, the orchestra, under the deft direction of Ari Picker, found its sweet spot in the foreground, adding new textures to every song, especially “Stroke It Noel,” “Holocaust,” “Take Care,” which included Charles Cleaver on accordion. Cleaver also perfected the careening piano on “Kizza Me”.
The performance included several bonus tracks, not contained on many of the LP versions—“Till the End of the Day” and “Nature Boy”—plus two songs by former Big Star member Chris Bell. Bell had left the band by the time Third came out, but he issued a single on Stamey’s Car label in 1978. Bell died in a car crash the same year. Harris sang lead on a nearly tone-perfect version of “You and Your Sister” and McMichaels admirably captured the sentiment of “I Am the Cosmos.”
I always have thought Big Star’s Third was intended to be heard in the wintertime because of the record’s imagery of scarves flying behind, air going cool, blue moons and fireplaces burning bright. The movie in my head was filmed in high contrast: white snow and black trees, as the main character battles the chill of urban canyons while struggling to calm his inner demons. After experiencing last night’s show, where I once saw darks, mid-tones and whites, I now see color. It is the difference between viewing black-and-white Depression-era photographs and then seeing the recently discovered versions that had been shot on Kodachrome.
Because of Chilton’s death last March, there was an unspoken, dutiful responsibility to the material. The performers not only honored it; they also expanded the tonal palette of the original. It was brilliant and beautiful. Again, I have been psychically reassembled.
Read our preview story, "Chris Stamey revisits Big Star's Third with a few dozen friends"