The golden-pop aura that New Yorkers saw hovering in the night sky on November 18th was from a rare local landing, at Brooklyn Masonic Temple, of the Memphis Beatles, Big Star: singer-guitarist Alex Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens with their reunion associates since 1993, guitarist Jon Auer and bassist Ken Stringfellow of the Posies. You can still count on one hand Big Star’s New York visits since 1974, when Chilton and Stephens (with a touring bassist) appeared at Max’s Kansas City to promote the hard-jangle classic Radio City. The Brooklyn show also coincided with a recent release, Keep Your Eyes on the Sky, a four-CD history of the three years, 1972-74, in which Chilton, Stephens, singer-guitarist Chris Bell and bassist Andy Hummel fused, right as they were falling apart, American garage rock, Southern R&B and the British Invasion on the historic pop-adventure albums, #1 Record, Radio City and Third.
Chilton and Stephens now lead a strong performing enterprise, even if it comes around with the frequency of a comet. Auer and Stringfellow, who built their own band on a deep love and study of Big Star, carried with seasoned enthusiasm their half of the treble-guitar tangle and fallen-angel harmonies of “In the Street” and “The Ballad of El Goodo,” from #1 Record, and the Radio City crackle of “You Get What You Deserve.” Auer sang the late Bell’s solo single “I Am the Cosmos” with ethereal poise; Stringfellow got a long ovation for his bright anguished vocal atop the bittersweet charge of #1‘s “Feel.”
Stephens, ironically, may be the most underrated member of the band he co-founded. He sang Hummel’s “Way Out West,” from Radio City, anchoring the harmonies around him with a clean, steely force. And when Stephens made the tricky rhythmic turnarounds of “In the Street” and “When My Baby’s Beside Me,” it was fascinating to see the mix of Keith Moon dynamics and Ringo Starr restraint in his drumming, tucked under the power-pop glaze of the original records.
As a young man, first with the Box Tops and then Big Star, Chilton already sounded like a hounded soul, with a strong high tenor hatched with experience and loss. Last night, he had that same voice, but with an added evident fondness for what he had achieved in these songs — and how good and potent they still are. When Chilton got to the verse in the teenage melodrama “Thirteen” about the angry father and the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It, Black” — “Rock & roll is here to stay/Come inside where it’s OK” — he delivered it like someone who got to that wisdom the hard way — and still believed it.
There were also some songs from the 2005 comeback album, In Space (including the overlooked beauty “February’s Quiet”), and a puzzling (to some) encore. “What, no ‘O My Soul’? Instead we get ‘Slut’?” one audience member asked after the lights went up. Well, it’s a great crunchy-pop Todd Rundgren cover. It was in Big Star’s live ’74 set lists. And there’s always next time — whenever that is.