On the Beat

Big Star comes back - Band’s influential album gets full live treatment

Jody Stephens of Big Star, out from behind the drums to sing.
Jody Stephens of Big Star, out from behind the drums to sing.

From the News & Observer archives -- Dec. 5, 2010

“Art Tatum: Piano Starts Here” won’t be this week’s only musical re-creation around these parts. “Stroke It, Noel,” billed as “A Fully Orchestrated Performance of Big Star’s Third Album,” will bring the much-loved cult classic to life for two nights at Cat’s Cradle.

Big Star disciple Chris Stamey is overseeing the project, with a performing ensemble that includes Big Star drummer Jody Stephens and members of R.E.M., dB’s, Let’s Active, Lost in the Trees, The Love Language, Rosebuds, Megafaun, The Old Ceremony and the N.C. Symphony.

Proceeds from the shows will benefit the KidZNotes program, which is teaching classical music to young children from a poor section of Durham, and to the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic, which provides health care. The concerts will also be filmed for a documentary on Big Star.

And while the project wasn’t supposed to be a wake, it kind of turned out that way. That’s because Big Star’s idiosyncratic frontman, Alex Chilton, died in March on the eve of a Big Star show at South By Southwest.

These shows were in the works by then, and Stamey went to Austin hoping to persuade Chilton to perform. But even Stephens doesn’t know whether his old bandmate would have agreed to do it, because Chilton always seemed ill at ease about his legacy as godfather to a generation of power-pop bands including R.E.M., Replacements and countless others.


Out of a dark time

Big Star’s “Third” has never exactly been a smile-filled affair. Dense and experimental, it plays like a rough-hewn version of the Beach Boys’ orchestrated pop. Even though Big Star’s label declined to release the album until 1978, three years after it was recorded, “Third” is now regarded on a par with the Velvet Underground in terms of its influence in alternative-rock circles. Not surprisingly, it emerged from tumultuous circumstances.

“It’s easier as time passes to revisit that album because it came out of such a dark period,” says Stephens. “There were brilliant moments in the studio, especially Carl Marsh’s string arrangements, which really take it to a whole other world. But it could be emotionally difficult to watch certain things happen. I was so close to it at the time that I could not see what it was.”

While various participants have been practicing in subgroups for months, the entire cast won’t gather until Wednesday, the day before the first performance. Stephens is curious to hear how it comes out.

“It’s one thing from the mouth of its creator, another from other people’s interpretation,” Stephens says. “I don’t know that anybody could quite say, ‘Play it for me, guitarist’ the way Alex delivered that line in ‘Dream Lover.’ It was so of the moment. Now it’s practiced and rehearsed. It could be that way with a lot of it. But I think there are some really wonderful songs. I’m looking forward to it.”

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi