CHICAGO -- Big Star hadn't played in two-and-a-half years before
Wednesday but, if you'd seen them Thursday onstage, you wouldn't have
The sound was tight and the songs sounded as fresh as they did more than
twenty years ago.
The band, which has played sporadically since reuniting in 1993 -- with a lineup
that features founding members Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens, abetted by
Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies -- is on a three-day tour that ends
Friday (May 7) at the Beale Street Music Festival in Memphis, Tenn., the band's
At the Metro here Thursday, Big Star played a new song along with a chunk of
their early-'70s catalog and several covers to a crowd that included fans who
weren't alive when the band was formed. Big Star still exert a profound
influence on the indie-rock world: Just as they took their cues from the Beatles
and Kinks, contemporary artists such as Wilco and Matthew Sweet echo Big
Star's sunny harmonies and bright, chiming guitars juxtaposed with self-referential and often troubled lyrical themes.
"I love the fact that everything I like today sounds like them," Michael Weinstein,
24, of Atlanta, said.
The quartet opened with an energetic "In the Street" (RealAudio
excerpt), a song from Big Star's 1972 debut, #1 Record, that's probably
best known now as the theme song to "That '70s Show." Clearly enjoying
themselves, Stephens mouthed the words as he pressed a propulsive beat and
Chilton hopped on one foot as he came downstage for a solo.
That fun-loving sense -- unexpected from a band storied for its tensions and for
Chilton's ill temper -- fueled vampy R&B versions of "Don't Lie to Me" and
"When My Baby's Beside Me," both also from #1 Record.
The 21-song set drew heavily from #1 Record and 1974's Radio
City. Big Star played only four songs from their dark, memorable final studio
album, Third/Sister Lovers, which was recorded in 1974 and released in
1978; in fact, they ignored shouted requests for such songs as "O, Dana" and
Given his curmudgeonly reputation, Chilton was surprisingly talkative and
playful. He prefaced "Jesus Christ" with an apology, saying the lyric was "copied
from a Presbyterian hymnal."
When he introduced another tune as "Big Star's first suite for orchestra in D
major, by George Frideric Chilton, in 5/4 time," guitarist Auer responded with the
opening notes of the Dave Brubeck jazz standard "Take Five."
Though Chilton clearly was the leader, the four swapped vocal duties regularly.
Stephens took the lead on "Way Out West" and his own "For You," while
Stringfellow and Auer strained at the upper limits of their ranges to approximate
the high, soulful vocals of late Big Star founder Chris Bell on "Feel"
(Stringfellow) and the Bell solo song "I Am the Cosmos" (Auer).
"I especially enjoyed ... 'I Am the Cosmos,' " Alex Ross, 29, of Chicago, said. "It
was a nice surprise to me that they played it." The song was the title track of a
1992 compilation of Bell's post-Big Star solo work. Bell died in a 1978 car
The band also played a new song, "Hot Thing," written by the four and slated for
release on a Big Star tribute album, Big Star, Small World.
Chilton, alluding to the tribute album's frequent delays, explained that "Hot
Thing" was recorded four years ago. Stephens promised the crowd that the
album would be released in the summer. The drummer has said he expects the
album's release in two or three months, once Ignition Records solidifies a
The band loosened up for a few covers, recalling the spontaneous spirit of the
original Big Star lineup on the Kinks' "Till the End of the Day" and a loud and
appropriately trashy version of Todd Rundgren's "Slut."
After "Slut," they played "Patty Girl," a ballad by '60s teen group Gary and the
Hornets. The latter song, which Chilton, 48, sang about a 12-year-old, put the
singer back into the lounge-singer mode that has marked his solo career of late.
The set closer, "Hot Thing," fused similarly creepy lyrics ("You're too young to go
steady/ Come on over/ I know everything about you") to a three-chord riff.
Weinstein said he would prefer the band "stick to the old stuff."
While fans called out for songs from Third/Sister Lovers when the four
returned for a brief encore, the band played another song from #1
Record. That one, too -- "Thirteen" -- was about a teenager.