After years of avoiding most of the songs from 1974’s “Third” album, the other members of Big Star’s v.2.0 lineup talked frontman Alex Chilton into finally rehearsing “Kizzame” in 2009. Or so they thought.
“We counted it off and started playing the tune, and Alex just stood there and then walked off stage, didn’t say anything,” remembered Ken Stringfellow.
When Chris Stamey was mapping out “Third’s” orchestral arrangements to stage a first-ever live performance of the influential album in 2010, he hoped but doubted Chilton would be involved.
“It wasn’t his favorite record,” said Stamey, who never found out because Chilton then died of a heart attack. “So the plans became a way to keep the music alive.”
For only about the 12th time since its initial staging, Stamey and Stringfellow will head up an all-star performance of “Third” at First Avenue on Wednesday. The booking is a nod to the club’s legendary status, and it’s a tribute to the man the Replacements immortalized among alt/indie rock fans with their song “Alex Chilton.”
Pointing to their only other gig a night later with the Kronos Quartet in San Francisco — “a more tuxedo event” — Stamey said, “I’m glad we can get sweaty in First Avenue.”
Officially billed as Big Star Third, many of the participants are First Ave vets: Stamey was a co-leader of the influential ’80s band the dB’s who later recorded with Twin/Tone imprint Coyote and toured in Bob Mould’s “Workbook” band; bassist Mike Mills of R.E.M., who played there on his band’s way up in 1981 and 1982; guitarist Audley Freed, ex-Black Crowes and now part of Sheryl Crow’s band; Posies co-leader Stringfellow, who was also a part of R.E.M.’s ’90s-’00s touring lineup, plus original Big Star drummer and sometimes vocalist Jody Stephens, who also was a member of the Minne-centric all-star band Golden Smog for a spell in the late-’90s.
Chilton’s lone bandmate during the “Third” era, Stephens is now the only living original member of Big Star. He also played First Ave with Chilton as the reformed Big Star in 1999, which Stringfellow remembered being “one of the most meaningful shows at the time.”
Despite Chilton’s untimely death and the fact that many of his songs on “Third” are downcast — one’s called “Holocaust,” after all — both Stringfellow and Stamey insist these concerts are a blast. Which explains why they keep doing them, despite the difficulty of scheduling them.
“Some of the emotions evoked by pieces like ‘Holocaust’ and ‘Kangaroo’ are at once real downers and real euphoric,” said Stamey. “A lot of rock music has one mood per song, but good songs like these can go to different places.”
Stringfellow even called these “Third” shows — which include songs from Big Star’s first two albums, too — “the musical highlight of my life.”
“They’re so uplifting, and such a mutual, shared experience,” said Stringfellow, pointing to the wide variety of participants in other cities’ performances.
“You draw all these musicians in from so many different corners of music, from [hazy indie-rocker] Kurt Vile to the Kronos Quartet, and young and old people, too, from Sharon Van Etten to us old farts. We’re all musicians connected to Big Star in some way.”
Truly a Big undertaking
The BS3 crew lined up a diverse array of Twin Cities performers for Wednesday’s guests, including Soul Asylum frontman Dave Pirner (who helped anchor a Chilton tribute at the New Orleans Jazz Fest in 2012), Matt Wilson (Trip Shakespeare), Linda Pitmon (Zuzu’s Petals), Josh Grier (Tapes n’ Tapes) and Jim Boquist (ex-Son Volt). The Four Voices String Quartet will handle the orchestral parts.
Stamey spent about nine months piecing together the lost transcriptions to “Third” in 2010 with help from original composer Carl Marsh and isolated studio tracks from Memphis’ Ardent Studios.
“There are lot of [musical] elements on that record that went beyond even ‘Sgt. Pepper’s,’ and it didn’t get the attention at the time,” Stamey said. “Alex and Jody had changed gears and were trying to use painterly techniques instead of just figuring out guitar parts.”
A few of “Third’s” tracks are rather straight-ahead rockers, including “Thank You Friends” and “Jesus Christ,” songs that Chilton would play later in his career. But many other songs such as “O, Dana,” “Nighttime,” “Kangaroo” and Stephens’ “For You” were enhanced with strings, wind instruments and even a drum part in “Downs” played with a basketball (yep, it’s part of the live show, too).
Record labels at the time didn’t know what to do with “Third,” which also carries the alternate title “Sister Lovers,” so it was shelved until a few small labels issued it a few different ways in the late-’70s. Rykodisc finally issued the most standard version of the album in 1992. Rolling Stone magazine eventually ranked it 449 on its list of rock’s 500 greatest albums of all time.
“When you listen to the album, a lot of that extra stuff is kind of buried in the mix, and it doesn’t strike you as a chamber-pop kind of album,” Stringfellow said.
When it comes to playing it live, though, he added, “you kind of need all those extra components to create the right mood and sound. It just doesn’t work the same without all the pieces in place. That’s why there are 25 people on stage with this thing.”
That also might be one reason Chilton did not play many of the songs later with the revamped Big Star. He did perform a lot of them around New York after relocating there in the late-’70s, and “they were very dear to him at that time,” recalled Stamey, who often gigged with Chilton then. As with a lot things in the former teen rock star’s life, though — he landed the No. 1 hit “The Letter” with the Box Tops at age 16 — Chilton’s true feelings about “Third” will probably remain a muddled mystery.
“He grew to like more R&B-flavor songwriting after that record, and I think the lyrics on it were not his favorite,” Stamey theorized.
Said Stringfellow, “He felt a lot of the songs Big Star recorded were kind of sophomoric and immature. These are the exact kind of words he used to describe his own work, which is hard for you and me and everyone who’s so into that music to believe.”