It should have been impossible to perform. Recorded in 1974 by the final Seventies incarnation of the power-pop band Big Star, and now lionized as one of the most brutally cathartic rock albums ever made, Third (also known as Sister Lovers) was the work of a once-magnificent group reduced to survivors – singer-guitarist Alex Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens – and emotional cinders. It was a document of great anger and pain, rendered in uneasy listening: juxtapositions of masterful rapture and radically violated pop convention, sung by Chilton in a soul-choirboy voice hypnotized by haunting. At the time, Third barely made it out of the studio; it wasn’t released until 1978. By then, there was no Big Star at all.
Yet on March 26th, at Baruch College’s Mason Hall in New York, a small army of Big Star disciples – more than 30 singers and players – recreated Third live, to loving effect, with a striking fidelity to the 1974 arrangements and weirdness. Guitarist and musical director Chris Stamey, who played with Chilton in the late Seventies, debuted this production with many of the same participants, including Stephens on drums, last year in North Carolina. For the New York performance – a benefit for the New Orleans Musicians Clinic and the music education charities KidZNotes and Corona Youth Music Project – R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe joined as special-guest singer. But the great ghostly presence in the room was the late Chilton. A year after his passing in March 2010, his determined bending of pop’s warming pleasures – hook, rhythm, jangle – to the dark howling in “Holocaust” and”Kanga Roo” and the battered warmth of “Take Care” reverberated in the affection and projection of the vocalists and Stamey’s summoning of the record’s challenging orchestrations.
Stipe’s performance of “Kanga Roo” was at once fragile and unbowed, while his R.E.M. cohort, singer-bassist Mike Mills, found the holiday in the Christmas song “Jesus Christ.” Alternative-country singer Tift Merritt was a vital female addition, showing that the vengeful kick of “You Can’t Have Me” could go both ways. Other voices included Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo (“O, Dana,” “Take Care”), Norman Blake of the Scottish band Teenage Fanclub (“Nightime”), Matthew Sweet (“Big Black Car”) and Django Haskins of the group The Old Ceremony, who carried the bleak weight of “Holocaust” with a wise plain poise.
The encores told more of the story. Stephens acknowledged his other fallen comrades – singer-guitarist Chris Bell, who died in 1978; bassist Andy Hummel, who passed away in July 2010; and the late Jim Dickinson, who produced Third – and Stamey led the entourage through both sides of Bell’s ’78 single, “You and Your Sister” and “I Am the Cosmos”; songs from the first two Big Star albums, #1 Record and Radio City; and even the Replacements’ homage “Alex Chilton.” But it was the friend and partner inside that last song which Stephens celebrated when he came out from behind his kit to sing “For You.” It was the drummer’s only composition on Third – Stephens mentioned that Chilton showed him some guitar chords, so he could finish writing it – and his delivery at Mason Hall was a warm essential reminder that, for Stephens, these songs are not just an album belatedly loved. They remain cherished living memory.