It's a good bet that for most people, their only exposure to the music of the band Big Star was when they heard it used as the theme song and incidental music for That '70s Show. But there was a group of fans that kept the flame alive before this, many of whom formed their own bands that drew inspiration from the underappreciated masters, bands like R.E.M., The Bangles, The Posies, The dB's, Let's Active and Game Theory.
Artists from or associated with these bands — Mike Mills from R.E.M., Susanna Hoffs and Vicki and Debbi Peterson from The Bangles, Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer from The Posies, Chris Stamey from The dB's, Mitch Easter from Let's Active and producer for R.E.M. and Game Theory — came together at the beautiful Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles on Sept. 27 to pay tribute to the music of Big Star, in the process raising money for the Autism Think Tank.
That's just the tip of the iceberg of the talent that was part of the show, which included a living connection to the band of honor: Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, the last surviving member of the original band. (Guitarists/vocalists Alex Chilton and Chris Bell died in 2010 and 1978, respectively, and bass player Andy Hummel also died in 2010.)
Other notable artists were the peerless Van Dyke Parks, who conducted the strings on many of the songs, Aimee Mann, Ira Kaplan from Yo La Tengo, Dean Wareham from Galaxie 500, Pete Yorn and Grouplove.
The evening began with Big Star's entire first record, #1 Record, a set of songs full of bright sounds and beautiful harmonies. To give an idea of how it rolled, the first song, "Feel," was soaringly sung by Stringfellow, who along with Auer was part of a reformed version of Big Star in the 1990s and 2000s. Next up was "Ballad of El Goodo" sung by Semisonic's Dan Wilson with spot-on backing vocals by The Bangles. This was followed by Mills singing "In the Street," the aforementioned theme song from That '70s Show, then "Thirteen," which was sung at a slowed-down tempo by the up-and-coming future star Skylar Gudasz. A bit later, Stephens sang the vocals on the Andy Hummel-penned "India Song."
With all of the personnel changes, there were a few minor, forgivable hiccups. For example, when "Don't Lie to Me" was about to start, the band noted that "we're missing a bass player," and while they waited for one to emerge (I won't name names), they jokingly started playing the chords to Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water." Later there was, to me, a too-long pause between the end of "Try Again" and the beginning of "Watch the Sunrise," which flow together so beautifully on the original album. But here I'm just picking nits.
After an intermission, the assembled musicians moved on to Big Star's third album, Third/Sister Lovers, and other associated songs. This is a moodier, more fragile set of songs, here played in a different sequence from the official release.
Some highlights were a majestic version of "Jesus Christ" sung by Mills with bells by Stamey, a powerful arrangement of "Kanga Roo" sung by singer/songwriter Brett Harris, a great vocal performance by Stringfellow for "Stroke It, Noel," the haunting "Holocaust" — arguably the emotional core of the album — sung by Django Haskins, "For You" and "Blue Moon" sung by Stephens, and the cover of the Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale" delivered in high register by Wareham with background vocals by Hoffs.
There was also a fun version of "Downs," with Mills bouncing a basketball to the beat, giving "a more subtle arrangement" compared with the one Stamey told about when he played it at CBGB's with Alex Chilton on blender. (More playful instrumentation was on the program with Stamey on toy ray gun during "Don't Lie to Me" and Mills playing a toy gun during the encore performance of Chilton's "Bangkok".) Also notable was "Dream Lover," sung by Gudasz with Stringfellow on high harmonies, with the nice touch of Gudasz saying, "Play it for me, guitarist" as on the recording, here with Easter launching into a wonderful guitar solo.
Speaking of Easter, he and Stamey — who was the musical director for the evening, which must've been an enormous task — were the evening's secret weapons, playing on virtually every song while staying mostly in the background. They did each get a turn in the spotlight, though, with Stamey singing "Nightime" and Easter kicking off the encore with a cover of The Kinks' "Till the End of the Day."
The encore also included a wonderful version of Chris Bell's solo song "I Am the Cosmos," sung by Yorn and, given Big Star's missing members, poignantly including lines like, "I'd really like to see you again." Big Star's second album, Radio City, was nicely represented by "Way Out West" sung by Stephens and Luther Russell, "Back of a Car" sung by Auer and Stringfellow, and "September Gurls" performed by The Bangles, who had covered it way back in 1986. A nice bonus, not listed on the nicely detailed program, was the unamplified "I'm in Love with a Girl" sung by Hoffs and Jason Falkner as the 11 p.m. curfew approached.
It is a testament to the strength of Big Star's wake that even after 2½ hours of music, one left wanting even more. For example, it would've been great to hear what this collection of talent could've done with Bell's dark classic "Better Save Yourself," or various other songs from Big Star's second album, Radio City. And there are lots of Big Star-influenced songs from the gathered artists' own catalogs that they could've played. But all in all, it was a magical evening, one that definitely lived up to the legend of Big Star.
Feel (Ken Stringfellow)
The Ballad of El Goodo (Dan Wilson with the Bangles)
In The Street (Mike Mills)
Thirteen (Skylar Gudasz)
Don't Lie to Me (Jason Falkner and Jon Auer)
The India Song (Jody Stephens)
When My Baby's Beside Me (Grouplove)
My Life Is Right (Ken Stringfellow)
Give Me Another Chance (Aimee Mann with Susanna Hoffs)
Try Again (Django Haskins)
Watch the Sunrise (Vicki Peterson and Brett Harris)
ST 100/6 (Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow)
— intermission —
Nature Boy (Eden Ahbez/Nat King Cole cover)
Django Haskins Kizza Me (Jon Auer)
O Dana (Ira Kaplan)
For You (Jody Stephens)
Nightime (Chris Stamey)
Jesus Christ (Mike Mills)
Take Care (Tommy Keene)
Big Black Car (Sarabeth Tucek)
Stroke It, Noel (Ken Stringfellow)
Blue Moon (Jody Stephens)
Femme Fatale, Velvet Underground cover (Dean Wareham with Susanna Hoffs)
Downs (Ira Kaplan and Ken Stringfellow)
Dream Lover (Skylar Gudasz and Ken Stringfellow)
Holocaust (Django Haskins)
You Can't Have Me (Mike Mills and Skylar Gudasz)
Kanga Roo (Brett Harris)
Thank You, Friends (Ensemble)
Till the End of the Day (Kinks cover)
Mitch Easter Morpha Too (Skylar Gudasz, Mike Mills, Brett Harris)
You and Your Sister, Chris Bell solo song (Brett Harris)
Way Out West (Jody Stephens and Luther Russell)
Back of a Car (Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow)
I Am the Cosmos, Chris Bell solo song (Pete Yorn)
Bangkok, Alex Chilton solo song (Ira Kaplan)
September Gurls (The Bangles)
I'm in Love with a Girl (Susannah Hoffs and Jason Falkner)
— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.