Big Star Third – Live at the Barbican Monday 28th May
At one point in this performance veteran Big Star drummer Jody Stephens told a rapt audience “Alex is definitely here – his spirit and the music.” Maybe the music – Alex Chilton wrote it and the whole Big Star Third LP reeks of his twisted vision. The problem was that not enough of Alex’s anarchic spirit survived the transfer to the Barbican’s staid surroundings.
A sturdy band comprising long-term Big Star supporters Mike Mills, Chris Stamey, Ken Stringfellow and Mitch Easter underpinned a rotating cast of guest vocalists. Having a live orchestra to recreate original arranger Carl Marsh’s scores proved to be a mixed blessing. The extended coda to Kanga Roo worked well and a moving Jody vocal on Blue Moon was enhanced by its delicate orchestral backing. Of the uptempo numbers Stroke It Noel worked best, with Norman Blake’s vocal supported by a strong string section. On other numbers such as September Gurls the backing added only distraction. Indeed on Give Me Another Chance I found myself missing the original Mellotron – the replacement strings sounded too authentic.
The guest vocalists were respectful but largely lacked presence. Honourable exceptions were Sharon Van Etten who brought a raucous defiance to You Can’t Have Me and Jon Auer who delivered a peerless I Am The Cosmos. The less said about Sondre Lerches vocal on Femme Fatale the better: Lesa Aldridge would have been unimpressed.
Re-reading Robert Gordon’s book on Memphis reminded me of the extraordinary circumstances under which Third was recorded, with only John Fry and Jim Dickinson holding things together. Radio recordings made by Alex around this time reveal a confrontational artist determined to see how far he could push himself and those around him. The comfortable confines of the Barbican deadened that energy, save right at the end when Ray Davies appeared. Having befriended Alex whilst both were living in New Orleans, Ray was ideally placed to sing Til The End Of The Day, followed by a version of The Letter so convincing that you’d believe it was The Kinks and not the Box Tops who charted with it in ’67.
Overall the evening felt more like a museum exhibit than a vibrant gig, despite the youth of many of the performers and of a surprising number of the audience. I am glad I was there to witness these extraordinary songs finally getting a public performance. But for the real spirit of Alex Chilton you’d need music with more Southern grit (how else can the oyster produce a pearl?)