It should come as no surprise that a Big Star reunion would take place on the spur of the moment, practically unannounced, in Middle America for a bunch of college kids. After all, during the legendary Memphis, Tenn.-based band’s brief existence, in the early ’70s, few people ever saw their infrequent performances or heard their poorly distributed albums, #1 Record (1972) and Radio City (1974), both angst-pop masterpieces. Nearly 20 years after the group broke up, their return was unheralded, their fans — consisting mainly of critics and garagelanders — were left in the dark. Fortunately, Columbia: Live at Missouri University — predictably, the band gets the name of the school wrong — is the next best thing to being there.
To play the University of Missouri’s Springfest, Big Star singer-songwriter-guitarist Alex Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens enlisted guitarist Jon Auer and bassist Ken Stringfellow of Seattle’s Posies. There’s none of the reverence or tentativeness that sometimes occurs when acolytes jam with their heroes; instead the foursome click in together as a band. Without trying to recreate pristine versions of the original songs, the rejuvenated Big Star go for feel: Guitars battle and build to crescendos, impassioned vocals push the melodic hooks with heart, soul and guts. Occasionally, things seem to whirl out of control, only to be rescued at the last minute by the rhythm section.
For the most part, Columbia‘s songs make just as much of an aural impact as did the original recordings. A world-weary soulfulness informs Chilton’s vocals on the plaintive “Ballad of El Goodo” and “September Gurls,” adding richness to what had earlier sounded like youthful longing. Two decades of being both icon and iconoclast are conveyed by Chilton’s keening tenor. Stringfellow and Auer put in admirable vocal performances, particularly on the lilting “Back of a Car” (sung by Stringfellow) and the wrenching “I Am the Cosmos” (deceased Big Star originator Chris Bell’s signature, sung by Auer). Rounding out the set are a couple of emblematic ’70s come-ons: T. Rex’s moody “Baby Strange” and Todd Rundgren’s sex cheer “Slut,” rendered with equal doses of irony and lustiness by Chilton.
Big Star avoid the nostalgic preciousness that has marred “reunions” of other rock & roll legends. Instead, the spirit of a commercially unsuccessful band of visionary mavericks has been delivered intact.