Saturday night's Big Star concert was ostensibly a kickoff for the Levitt Shell's spring season. But for the Memphis pop band, it was the end of a long and unlikely 40-year odyssey -- from '70s cutout-bin ignominy to '80s cult-star status, to a '90s reformation and, ultimately, a place in the pantheon of rock's greatest and most influential bands.
The death of frontman Alex Chilton in March effectively marked the end of the group. The Shell show -- which had been booked before Chilton's passing -- was recast as a tribute to the singer (much like the band's set at Austin's South by Southwest music conference a couple of months earlier). The surviving members of Big Star -- original member and drummer Jody Stephens and latter-day duo Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow -- seemed determined to send things off in high style.
The nearly 2,000 in attendance, spread over blankets and seated in lawn chairs, settled in as the band kicked off with "Back of a Car." While passing storms threatened the event momentarily, few in the crowd were willing to let a little rain spoil the night.
The first guest to stand in for Chilton was John Davis of Knoxville power-pop outfit Superdrag. The intensely expressive Davis threw himself into a trio of #1 Record classics, working up a wistful "In the Street," a gnarled "Don't Lie To Me" and a playfully insistent "When My Baby's Beside Me."
Auer took a moment to thank late Big Star founder Chris Bell's family -- many of whom were in attendance -- for allowing him to play Bell's prized cherry red Gibson electric. Auer put the instrument to good use with a pair of blistering solos on Bell's "I Am the Cosmos."
Chilton contemporary Van Duren came next with a playful take on "Mod Lang." Then it was Stringfellow's turn to take center stage, as he navigated a moody "Daisy Glaze," before yielding the microphone to R.E.M.'s Mike Mills for a jubilant "Jesus Christ."
Stephens' brother Jimmy came on to add bass to "For You" -- a role he played on the original Sister/Lovers recording. The moment was a reminder that original Big Star bassist Andy Hummel, who had been scheduled to appear, was forced to cancel due to illness.
A mix of guests followed. Roots songstress Amy Speace gave voice to the pleading "Give Me Another Chance," Lucero's Rick Steff played soulful accordion on late-period Big Star gem "Lady Sweet," and local blues diva Susan Marshall offered up a breathy reading of "Nighttime."
As Norwegian singer-songwriter Sondre Lerche began a solo version of "I'm In Love with a Girl," hard rain began to pelt him, and Raconteurs member Brendan Benson ran onstage to offer him an umbrella. Benson soon returned, guitar in hand this time, for a heavy, funky ramble through "O My Soul" and a shimmering "September Gurls."
The stage then cleared, leaving just Auer and Stringfelllow to duet on a sadly beautiful “Take Care” -- a moment that was revelatory. Beyond a celebration of Chilton, Bell and the Big Star legacy, the show also proved to be an affirmation of Auer and Stringfellow as well; their generous spirit and expert musicianship having played a vital role in keeping that legacy alive for nearly two decades.
As the entire cast of guests returned to the stage for the encore, the band chose to close with the breezy In Space number “A Whole New Thing” – the sort of offhanded Beach Boys pastiche that Chilton so loved. Chilton’s leering, mischievous spirit seemed to be guiding the number. By the song's end Auer had broken nearly all the stings on his guitar and the performance had collapsed into a battle of pop harmonies and rock and roll discord. It was beauty and chaos all at once – a perfect farewell to Chilton, and a strangely fitting end to the Big Star story.
— Bob Mehr, 529-2517