The legacy of Big Star—that early ‘70s rock ’n’ roll band that sold very few records but appears to have influenced an entire generation of musicians—has never been stronger.
All these years later, the best has stayed in the forefront of modern pop culture in unexpected ways:
*An excellent documentary film (2012’s Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me) continues to make the rounds.
*A Man Called Destruction, Holly George-Warren’s excellent biography of the band’s central figure Alex Chilton emerged to much praise this year.
*The band’s first two albums, #1 Record and Radio City were just reissued, newly remastered and bearing appreciative liner notes by longtime Big Star fan Mike Mills of R.E.M.
*And anyone who’s enjoyed the opening theme of TV’s long-running That ‘70s Show, otherwise known as “In The Street,” was digging Cheap Trick’s cover of a Big Star song.
But the potential of any massive commercial resurgence of Big Star is irreparably damaged by the passing of three of the quartet’s founding members: guitarist Chris Bell, band founder, songwriter and vocalist, left the band after its first album and died in 1978; Chilton, guitarist, songwriter and vocalist (and former member of ‘60s hitmakers the Box Tops), died of a heart attack in 2010; and Andy Hummel, bassist, singer and songwriter, died the same year of cancer.
Still, Big Star can be righteously celebrated–and most recently were in Los Angeles, when the band’s music was performed by an extended assemblage of distinguished musicians dubbed Big Star’s Third to benefit the local non-profit Autism Think Tank.
Central to the event was the core group dubbed Big Star’s Third–featuring original Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, music director Chris Stamey (the dB’s), Ken Stringfellow & Jon Auer (the Posies), Mitch Easter (Let’s Active), R.E.M.’s Mills, Ira Kaplan (Yo La Tengo), and comparative newcomers Django Haskins, Skylar Gudasz, and Brett Harris. Guest musicians at the benefit concert were conspicuously numerous, and all of them quite good, including the Bangles, Aimee Mann, Pete Yorn, Dan Wilson (Semisonic), Dean Wareham (Galaxie 500), Jason Falkner, Tommy Keene, Luther Russell, and the distinguished Van Dyke Parks, conducting a full-on chamber orchestra.
Two days prior to that very memorable concert, a significantly stripped-down version of Big Star’s Third stopped by Yahoo’s Santa Monica studios to give us a preview of what we’d be hearing—and our minds were relatively blown.
Featured in the small group were Stephens, Stamey, Harris, Gudasz, Haskins and bassist Jeff Crawford, and between them they ran through three unexpectedly sweet Big Star classics, all performed with love, warmth, accuracy, and the respect such music clearly deserves.
Following the performance, drummer Stephens—who as you’ll see is himself a fine singer—discussed the upcoming event, the genesis of the current performing group, and what it is about Big Star that always was—and still is—so definitively magical.
This is powerful stuff.