If any Minneapolis record-store clerk and not Jack Black had taught “School of Rock,” then Wednesday’s concert at First Avenue would have been the ultimate class – and the movie might have been called “Higher Fidelity.”
The group onstage was billed as Big Star Third, featuring the lone surviving member of the 1970s cult heroes Big Star, some indie rock all-stars and several Minnesota favorites playing Big Star’s “Third,” its obscure but beloved 1974 chamber pop album in its entirety. And, for good measure, the ensemble delivered selections from Big Star’s 1972 debut “#1 Record.”
What looked like a music geek’s dream actually turned out to be a musically triumphant evening.
“Third” is not for everyone. Sort of an ambitious Mid-South answer to Brian Wilson’s “Smiley Smile,” the Big Star album is downcast in sound and depressing in content. However, a parade of vocalists managed to bring variety and nuanced emotion to the material.
Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner rocked in a way that made one appreciate him anew. Matt Wilson, Josh Grier of Tapes N Tapes, Ken Stringfellow of the Posies and Brett Harris brought high-voiced fragility. Skylar Gudasz brought a sweetness, Mike Mills of R.E.M. fame brought a sense of fun. Drummer/singer Jody Stephens, the sole surviving member of Big Star, brought a direct connection and authenticity to the project.
Local musicians – a horn section, string quartet and oboist -- complemented the touring core band, providing a chamber pop sophistication and moodiness that was not appreciated when Big Star presented the album to record labels back in 1975.
But history – and music geeks (First Ave was filled with local musicians and record-store clerks, present and past) – have corrected that.
Props to music director Chris Stamey of dBs renown. He and Stringfellow helped organize and orchestrate the smoothly running program. (Stringfellow pointed out that each performance of “Third” is different because it features a primarily local cast of singers.)
After the hour-long “Third,” the band and cavalcade of vocalists delved into more familiar Big Star material. The highlights included Pirner and Jim Boquist rocking out on “When My Baby’s Beside Me,” Grier and Harris roaring through “Don’t Lie To Me” and the pretty and precious “Thirteen” by Stamey, Gudasz and Harris.
It was a big night for Big Star and its devoted fans onstage and in the audience.