The most important music release of this week is a film. Thank You, Friends: Big Star's Third Live...And More is both a movie and a 2-CD set. The extraordinary DVD (or Blu-Ray) captures a recent concert organized by Chris Stamey of The dB's to honor the artistry of Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Jody Stephens, and Andy Hummel -- Big Star -- and, more specifically, imagine the songs on the "difficult" third Big Star record as ones that could be performed and fleshed out (in a sense) in a live setting. That so much of this succeeds so well is a testament to both the enduring strength of these compositions, and the musical acumen of Stamey as a sort of project ring-leader for a concert that, on this night, involved names like Jeff Tweedy, Robyn Hitchcock, Dan Wilson, Ira Kaplan, Jody Stephens, Mitch Easter, Skylar Gudasz, and many others.
Chris Stamey was, of course, a member of The dB's, but he remains a fine solo artist, as I explained in my rave review of his last album, and he was, of course, tied up in the power-pop and New Wave scenes in the late Seventies, both in Chilton's band at one point, and as a member of the seminal Sneakers, subject of a recent fine reissue, along with Mitch Easter.
And, frankly, what better time for this film about Third than now, just a few months after Omnivore Recording's amazing reissue of the record? I reviewed that release here a few months ago and I remain impressed by how wonderfully it presented the genius of Alex Chilton, Jody Stephens, and the associated players.
The concert project centered on Big Star's Third album, captured on Thank You, Friends: Big Star's Third Live...And More, began in North Carolina, the home of both Chris Stamey and Mitch Easter. And as Stamey explained to me in an interview about Thank You, Friends: Big Star's Third Live...And More:
"There are a lot of well-known music scenes around the country, but I remember when I was playing with Alex [Chilton] in the late Seventies, I was very unimpressed with the level of musicianship around the CBGB scene, and I told Alex and he said: 'You know Chris, good things come from the provinces.' I do think that North Carolina is a province that has a high degree of musicality, especially now." Stamey further revealed the central place that the Cat's Cradle venue played in getting this started and hosting early versions of what is here in the film.
Soon after that, Stamey got the original scores for Big Star's Third from Carl Marsh and then it became a task of "trying to perform it live, or attempt to perform a version of it live." Still, there were some scores that were lost but "John Fry at Ardent gave us the multitrack tapes to work off of" and "We tried to realize the spirit of the songs."
And a viewer finds while watching Thank You, Friends: Big Star's Third Live...And More, it is the songs, not the guest vocalists, that are the stars here. As Stamey says, "this was different than a 'tribute' show since we were trying to learn what was there in order to, in some ways, depart from it." The influence of the approach of composers like Mingus was a touchstone for many of the players and Stamey behind the scenes, and the end results offered very different versions of Big Star, even as the tunes remained perennial tributes to the enduring genius of Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Andy Hummel, and Jody Stephens. And, most importantly to Stamey, the concert version offered here in Thank You, Friends: Big Star's Third Live...And More was a unique form of tribute to those performers and it was "very meaningful to hear the songs in a big room."
But the mechanics of how this was put together were probably daunting, not the least being how to pair up the right performer with the right track. As Stamey explains, "I thought of this as if we were making a stage version of a movie" with the performers "coming up with different solutions than they had on the record" but the chosen performers were, ultimately, trying to get across the same thing, including the "juxtaposition of elements" that makes Third such an odd, touching, and affecting record. Still, Stamey says, it was like "casting" as to who would sing which track: "I would go through and figure out ranges based on other things they've recorded" and adapt the arrangements for the performers. "So the ranges are high on some songs," Stamey explains. "But in the end it was a matter of not only range but also 'Who has the gravitas for this?'" That was the method that guided the process of pairing up a performer with a Big Star song for the project, Chris adding that in "every case it was done very carefully."
One of the highlights of Thank You, Friends: Big Star's Third Live...And More is the inclusion of Chris Bell's solo song, "I Am The Cosmos", sung by Stamey in the film, the guy who released the original single so many decades ago. On singing such an untouchable track, Stamey says, "Sometimes it's overwhelming, overwhelmingly emotional as there's a lot that goes on with that song" but in "I Am The Cosmos" in the end "I was just just trying to hit the notes" as it was the end of the concert and a fairly poignant peak in the set. "It's always a point in the concert where we can get lost in the moment and get swept up in the emotions."
But ultimately the release of Thank You, Friends: Big Star's Third Live...And More should serve, for newer fans, as a sort of introduction to Alex Chilton, an artist who evolved, certainly, beyond the 3 main Big Star records.
Chris Stamey referenced Picasso when thinking of that changeability of Chilton: "I think about someone like Picasso who was very changeable and that impulse to evolve and take it further was something that was once very valued" by listeners, but "if Picasso got asked about those sad clowns all the time and then but 'What are all these cubes?' even Picasso would have been ticked off." Stamey says that he thinks, "Alex would have been sad that people weren't paying more attention to his solo records." And, he adds, "I do hope that, if bands are a gateway drug to other Big Star records, I do hope that the movie will lead people to investigate other parts of Alex's catalog".
While Thank You, Friends: Big Star's Third Live...And More remains an amazing CD and DVD release, Stamey retains a tiny bit of doubt if it was the perfect representation of that concert experience: "It was definitely on that night and we really got lucky" and "I am very happy, but 'definitive?' I don't know. But I am really happy with it."
Thank You, Friends: Big Star's Third Live...And More is out on Friday via the Concord Music Group.