Sydney Festival Live Review: Big Star's Third Tribute feat. Tim Rogers, Cat Power, Kurt Vile, Kim Salmon, Edwyn Collins & Dave Faulkner - Enmore Theatre (23.01.14)

Big Star were a cult band but their influence has been far-reaching. The likes of R.E.M., The Flaming Lips, Belle & Sebastian and The Replacements have all cited them as influences and their music has been covered by Placebo, Jeff Buckley, Yo La Tengo and Elliott Smith, to name a few. They are the little band that could and it is Jody Stephens, the group’s drummer and sole-surviving original member who is keeping their music alive with tribute nights like Big Star’s Third.

The concert was an Australian exclusive for Sydney Festival and has been previously performed in London, SXSW and a few dates in America. It’s not bad going for an album that was never “actually completed” (none of the members could agree on a definitive version of the record) and never released during the band’s active years. The group were barely even a unit when it was recorded with Stephens and front man, Alex Chilton (The Box Tops) collaborating in a sort of song-a-day project and they were unsure if the music was ever going to bear the “Big Star” tag.

The Big Star Third show commenced with a cover of Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy”. It is a number which Chilton considered was the theme and core for the album. It was then time to introduce the band: Mike Mills (R.E.M.), Chris Stamey (The dB’s), Ken Stringfellow (The Posies, Big Star), Mitch Easter (Let’s Active), Charles Cleaver, Brett Harris, Skylar Gudasz, Django Haskins and a local string ensemble. They were joined by a revolving cast of vocalists which included: Tim Rogers, Kim Salmon (The Scientists), Edwyn Collins, Kurt Vile, Dave Faulkner and Chan Marshall (Cat Power).

“Kizza Me” was the first Big Star original to be performed. It was a big, rocking track but it was not really indicative of what was to come. In fact, nothing (save listening to the copies of the out-of-print record) could’ve prepared the audience for what was to follow. The Third album, also known as Sister Lovers has been described in a lot of ways. “An untidy masterpiece”, “frustrating”, “mysterious”, “brutally honest”, “beautiful”, “disturbing” and “extraordinary” are just some of the words that have been used. And yet for all of its jaggedness, it is underpinned by a haunting, visceral brilliance that shines (and truly sparkled) as it was performed live.

Big Star were influenced by the British Invasion bands of the time and Third could arguably be the group’s Sgt. Pepper’s. “O, Dana” was a very cheery pop song compared to Marshall’s sultry vixen take on “Nighttime”. “For You” meanwhile, was like a tapestry of sounds especially when you considered the full, orchestral backing while “Jesus Christ” appeared to go off on some odd tangent into the realm of tongue-in-cheek naughtiness.

“Take Care” is a cautionary tale and was a signpost of the darker elements to follow. But then the mood shifted yet again for the Dave Faulkner-lead “Big Black Car”. The latter was a dreamy affair that saw the Hoodoo Gurus front man dressed like a Beatle from the early sixties but with very modern, crisp vocals. The same cannot be said for Kurt Vile whose delivery in “Stroke It Noel” was left wanting (think: a mumbling, out of tune drawl).

The Lou Reed-penned, “Femme Fatale” was also another sad song but it said a lot about where Chilton’s head was during this time. It also contrasted with “Downs” as this one was more reminiscent of The Doors’ “Soul Kitchen”. “Holocaust” again was something different and was often played by Chilton late at night at CBGBs and - like tonight - it saw the mood in the room shift to a blacker place.

Stephens resembled the late Keith Moon (The Who) as he drummed in “You Can’t Have Me”. But it was the group as a whole who seemed to resemble Led Zeppelin the most. This was because heavier, fuzzed up guitar moments would then be offset by other times when the mood would lighten. The best comparison is possibly, “Stairway To Heaven”, as the listener was taken on a virtual merry-go-round of music and emotion that was a strange but ultimately rather fruitful experience.

After “Thank You Friends” had been played, this signalled the end of the magic carpet ride that was Big Star’s Third album. The band would then go on to play a full set of the group’s other cuts plus a few other surprises. But unfortunately, this was a let down when compared to the main feature because a lot of these numbers fit the same sort of mid-tempo mould and feel and they certainly weren’t as varied in terms of genre. This second set overstayed its welcome and at its very worse got to be an exercise in self-indulgence.

The concert was a hit and miss affair but the second half did manage a few highlights. Edwyn Collins gave a rousing performance for his sole number, a cover of The Box Tops’ “The Letter”. It would’ve been a tough one for the Scotsman to master but he was assisted by a good backing choir. Similarly, “December Gurls” was some amazing pop and “Till The End Of The Day” was as tight and as punchy as The Kinks’ original.

At close to two and a half hours, it is difficult to sum up the performance of Big Star’s Third. There were certainly moments where the show lived up to the album’s reviews of it being a weird and untidy masterpiece with beautiful, experimental and often haunting moments. But there were some slower points where things seemed to lack direction and overall purpose. One thing Jody Stephens wanted to do was honour and keep his band’s album alive and with such rich, cryptic and oblique material at their fingertips, this was no easy task. In short, it was a bold, erratic, raw and honest performance of a vehemently original band that continues to intrigue, mystify, frustrate and influence people to this day.

Big Star Third’s Sydney set list:
1. Nature Boy (originally performed by Nat King Cole)
2. Kizza Me
3. O, Dana
4. For You
5. Nighttime
6. Jesus Christ
7. Take Care
8. Big Black Car
9. Stroke It Noel
10. Blue Moon
11. Femme Fatal (originally performed by The Velvet Underground)
12. Downs
13. Dream Lover
14. Holocaust
15. You Can’t Have Me
16. Kanga Roo
17. Thank You Friends
18. Feel
19. Daisy Glaze
20. Thirteen
21. I’m In Love With A Girl
22. You & Your Sister
23. February’s Quiet
24. Back Of A Car
25. In The Street
26. There Was A Light
27. Way Out West
28. Morpha Too
29. Give Me Another Chance
30. I Am The Cosmos
31. Till The End Of The Day (originally performed by The Kinks)
32. September Gurls
33. The Letter (originally performed by The Box Tops)
34. When My Baby’s Beside Me