Sunday, March 27, 2011

December Boys Got It Bad

So I went, last night, to see the Big Star Third show At Mason Hall at Baruch College in New York.

Transcendent. I felt like I’d been to church. And I was raised Catholic, so I grew up accustomed to the that kind of overwhelming sensory phenomena that I felt last night, the kind that both confirms and inducts you into a community of true believers as you soar together through the experience.

Part of that was surely intentional on the part of Chris Stamey, late of the dBs, the organizer of the evening. A live performance of the numbers from Big Star’s Third album, aka Sister Lovers, formed the main part of the evening, but the encore was much more clearly hagiographical: we watched the religion of Saint Alex be formed and shaped and confirmed with dozens of acolytes and hundreds of congregants, in communion. And I was there.

The evening started on a weird note, with airport-level security at the concert hall. Lizz Winstead, who was apparently there, tweeted that security was “doing a lot of unnecessary dickery on the aging hipsters.” Not a problem, except it delayed the curtain by nearly an hour as people filtered in, got drinks, and resisted going to their seats. Plus, it made us feel sexy and dangerous! We were not the kind of crowd that customarily gets searched: an older, overwhelmingly white, predominantly male, crowd. (Winstead estimated it was 10:1 male, which sounds right: welcome to the world of power pop.) Whole lotta December boys out last night.

I was looking around for someone under 30, and one of my companions pointed a youngster out. Then it turned out that she was carrying a doll: someone had brought their kids, which I don’t think exactly counts. But in general, the level of Portlandia fashion loomed so high that I was personally ashamed of my big black glasses and faux-ironic tee (“I used to be cool,” it read), and my cloud of aggressively “hey-I’m-PREMATURELY-gray” hair. It was one big goddamn mirror, I’ll tell you that. And I was pretty okay with that, preferring it to the last few concert runs I’ve had, where I was the oldest person in the room, except for the band, drowning in a sea of flannel and ironic trucker hats. (Good news: that trend appears to be fading.)

Anyway, the show.

It started with a weak spot: a band called Lost in the Trees which, despite the fact that there were strings and sousaphones, was not really aimed at this crowd. Openers are always tricky, of course, but in this case, the art-school/emo noodling of the band was a serious issue: people near me were actively sleeping. And though one person I was following on Twitter was clearly in love with the autoharp/French horn/accordion-playing chica who fronted the band with Ari Picker, I noted (in an unkind, snarky moment I’m ashamed of) that Big Star fans are usually Beatle fans, and we tend to be somewhat suspicious of that kind of artsy stuff, and of anything which smacks of Yoko’s more invasive outings. And I was reading Twitter during the performance: not generally a good sign. Which isn’t to say they weren’t skilled—I think they achieved the sound they were after—but I think it was a mismatch, as did the easily more than a hundred people I joined at the bar in the lobby, eventually.

But when the show itself started, it was bang-bang-bang beauty. Hardly had you absorbed one song than another came along. And they weren’t all perfect, in this main part of the show, but enough were to be left with a sense of being both soothed and inspired by the almost ritualistic performance.

The poster featured some big names—Matthew Sweet, Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, Ira Kaplan (of Yo La Tengo), Norman Blake (of Teenage Fanclub), Mitch Easter, the still-breathtakingly-handsome Jody Stephens, and Stamey himself—but the heavy lifting was done by a quintet of relative youngsters, all-but-unknown to me, but of whom I’m now a huge fan: Sidney Dixon, who didn’t get a solo but was a rock-solid, beautiful backup singer throughout, Tift Merritt, who made me think of Neko Case without wishing she were there, Matt McMichaels of the Mayflies, who sang lead or backup on well over half the songs, unapologetic popster Brett Harris, and the MC of the evening, Django Haskins of the Old Ceremony (who, the internets tell me, play “lush, literate rock” which doesn’t surprise me at all). These kids, all from in and around Durham, NC, made the night move, and they’re obviously people to watch.

Okay, set list. With the clear caveat that there were never less than 20 people onstage at any given moment, including the orchestra. But these were the lead singers.

Django Haskins – Nature Boy
Matt McMichaels – Kizza Me
Ira Kaplan – Oh, Dana
Jody Stephens – For You
Norman Blake – Nighttime
Mike Mills – Jesus Christ
Ira Kaplan – Take Care
Matthew Sweet – Big Black Car
Norman Blake – Stroke it Noel
Jody Stephens – Blue Moon
Brett Harris – Femme Fatale
Chris Stamey – Downs
Tift Merritt – Dream Lover
Django Haskins – Holocaust
Tift Merritt/Django Haskins – You Can’t Have Me
Michael Stipe/Brett Harris – Kanga-Roo
Company – Thank You Friends

In some cases, my friends and I agreed, the songs were done with more care and lusher arrangements than Chilton intended: in particular, Stipe’s “Kanga-Roo” was dense and glorious, not the glorious mess of anti-pop that made the record. For well over 90 minutes, I was held in this perfect bubble, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only person looking at Jody Stephens and thinking, “He deserves this. They all deserved this.”

The encore was more direct—and cast a wider net—intended to induct any stragglers firmly into the Church of Chilton. At ten songs, it was more than half again as long as the show, but not a soul got restive that I could see. It included not just songs from the first two Big Star records, but Chilton’s adolescent pop hit “The Letter” and his while-he-was-living tribute, The ‘Mats’ “Alex Chilton,” as well as the two beautiful songs from the pop single produced by his erstwhile bandmate Chris Bell: “You and Your Sister” and “I Am the Cosmos.” The latter of these was peculiarly wedged into the Chilton legend, as Stamey explained that “One day, Alex called me and said there was this song I had to hear,” before launching into Bell’s soaring song. Not complaining, mind you, just pointing out that it was kind of an odd moment rhetorically.

Brett Harris /Matt McMichaels – You and Your Sister
Matthew Sweet/Mike Mills – September Gurls
Norman Blake – I Am the Cosmos
Tift Merritt – Thirteen
Matt McMichaels – Don’t Give Up on Me
Mitch Easter – Till the End of the Day
Norman Blake – I’m in Love with a Girl
Matt McMichaels – Alex Chilton
Gordon Zacharias – When You Smile
Michael Stipe & full company – The Letter

These songs varied more in performance, with “September Gurls” falling surprisingly flat, particularly as compared to the soaring, shiver-inducing “Thirteen.” And I felt kind of bad for the orchestra, who sat around for much of the encore, though their contributions, when called on, were beautifully done and just right.

Stamey should be fiercely proud of this achievement. It was an extraordinary evening, and I was honored to be there. The show is traveling to Memphis and maybe LA, I hear, so be sure to check it out if you get a chance.


Cangrejero said...

This sounds much better than what they did in Carrboro, which itself was fantastic.

Alex said...

Wow -- sounds amazing.

I hope they bring this to LA.

PS: While we're on the subject, let's not wait until Chris Stamey is dead before *he* gets the appreciation he so richly deserves!

W said...

Amen to your appreciation of Chris Stamey, Alex.

NYMary, what is the source of your info about a Memphis show?? That's wonderful news!

NYMary said...

W, in the articles in the run-up to this concert, there was a Reuters article which mentioned that they hope to keep traveling with the show. I did make a mistake, however: it's Nashville they're hoping for.

Alex, I couldn't agree more.

Anonymous said...

Highlight for me was Brett Harris' rendition of You and Your Sister. He absolutely nailed the Chris Bell melody causing me to seriously fight back the welling of the eyes. To hear the strings accompany someone pay tribute to this music with such raw talent was amazing. I think Mike Mills felt the same way because he actually walked up to the mic after the song, and while he didn't mention Brett by name, raved about his peformance right onstage.

Totally agree with you about September Gurls coming up short. It almost seemed as if they felt the song had already seen its way on enough tributes and mainstream treatment over the years perhaps to even reduce the attention to it.

Good thing they had all the Guantanamo style anti terrorism equipment there last night. There's nothing like a classic Big Star tribute night that attracts potential threats, and Baruch was there to stamp those threats out last night. ;)

steve simels said...

Good thing they had all the Guantanamo style anti terrorism equipment there last night. There's nothing like a classic Big Star tribute night that attracts potential threats,

Well, as we're constantly being told, 9/11 changed everything.

Seriously, is this show being recorded for video? I can't they would go through all this effort not to make it available to a wider audience down the road....

W said...

NYMary, I hope if they make it to Nashville that they'll keep going and hit Memphis, home of Big Star. Keeping my fingers crossed!

Faze said...

Big Star fans are usually Beatle fans, and we tend to be somewhat suspicious of that kind of artsy stuff, and of anything which smacks of Yoko’s more invasive outings.

Ain't it the truth! One whiff of Yoko turns my heart to stone. But on another topic, what about the majority maleness of it all? The music is so romantic! Yet any power pop event is dominated by balding, pot-bellied old poops with stars in their eyes that I love as compadres, but who leave me a little sad. My wife has no problem sending me off to see touring power pop acts in my town, knowing that meeting women is the least likely thing to happen at such a concert.

Billy B said...

I've bored several of the posters here with the story, but I used to work at a Big Star supermarket back in high school.

Anonymous said...

Tift Merritt IS awesome. Saw her at the Grand Ole Opry in '07. Her band played on the steps outside then she did a few numbers in the show with the likes of Mel Tillis, Jimmy C. Newman etc and went over well. She did a duet that night with Charlie Louvin that was great.

VforVirginia said...

I have to echo steve's thought: this made me long to have been there and hope there will be a video at some point.

Lovely piece.