After a two-hour tribute to Big Star’s lost-then-found classic album “Third,” drummer Jody Stephens provided an instant review for the audience Friday at Park West.
The concert “reminds me of recording the third album,” said Big Star’s sole surviving original member. “There were moments of focus, and there were moments of no focus.”
It wasn’t for lack of effort. Over the last couple years, a core group of musicians who revere Stephens’ little-known but highly influential Memphis band has been helping him stage a handful of ambitious concerts that would finally bring “Third” to the stage. Soon after the album was recorded in 1974, Big Star broke up and most of its songs were never performed by the band members who shaped them, Stephens and singer-guitarist Alex Chilton.
The album has been rescued from obscurity by subsequent generations of rockers, who regard it as a lost masterpiece, a testament to the deeply personal songwriting of Chilton, who died in 2010. Big Star had recorded two previous albums of melodically rich power pop, “#1 Record” (1972) and “Radio City” (1974); the songs had their twists, but were generally wistful takes on love lost and found. “Third” took a turn for the dark and strange; while Chilton’s gift for crafting indelible tunes remained, his lyrics took on deeper, more ambiguous and disturbing shades.
On Friday, a band including Stephens and indie-pop stalwarts Chris Stamey (of the dB’s), Ken Stringfellow (Posies) and Mitch Easter (Let’s Active) performed 17 songs associated with the “Third” sessions. They were supplemented by a revolving door of musicians and vocalists who took turns performing the songs with varying degrees of success. What’s more, a string section played parts originally scored for the album. The entire ensemble put in two days of rehearsal, and the rough edges were apparent; there were false starts, bum notes, an apology or two for a screw-up, and some ill-prepared vocalists focused so intently on the lyric sheets that they never quite immersed themselves in the songs.
As the most emotionally layered of Big Star’s albums, “Third” poses a far greater challenge to replicate than its two predecessors. Vocalist Django Haskins said it best: “(Stuff) gets weird.”
Chilton’s weirdness really can’t be replicated, though the musicians gave it a shot; on a ramshackle “Downs,” Stringfellow even bounced a basketball to mimic the off-kilter percussion on the studio track.
The best performances were often some of the simplest, including Haskins’ stripped-down “Nature Boy,” the Nat King Cole hit that Chilton used to distill the album’s central theme: “The greatest thing you'll ever learn/Is just to love and be loved in return.” But, of course, complications intrude, which gives “Third” its tragic arch.
The Mekons’ Sally Timms brought a fragile shiver to “Nightime,” the Smoking Popes’ Josh Caterer conjured a smoky, jazz-crooner ambiance on the desolate “Big Black Car,” and queasy strings underscored the lovestruck testimony of Stamey on “Kanga Roo.”
Amid all this uneasiness, Stephens’ boyish lead vocal on the baroque pop ballad “For You,” with its exquisite string arrangement, and Caterer’s soaring take on the hymn “Jesus Christ” provided necessary respites. A seething “You Can’t Have Me” offered a different type of release, with Stephens’ drums blasting through with Keith Moon-like bombast, while Ken Vandermark’s lacerating saxophone solo threatened to run away with the evening.
Similarly bracing was the gravelly lead vocal of Urge Overkill’s Ed Roeser on “The Letter,” Chilton’s first major hit with the Box Tops. Roeser wasn’t the most technically accomplished vocalist on stage, but he captured Chilton’s anarchic spirit by seizing the song as if it belonged to him instead of the distant past.
Big Star “Third” set list Friday at Park West
1. Nature Boy (Nat King Cole)
2. Kizza Me
3. O, Dana
4. For You
6. Jesus Christ