Big Star – Ardmore Music Hall – Ardmore, PA – December 6, 2022
Perhaps you’ve heard the legend. An unknown rock band puts out a debut album on an imprint on of a record label more well-known for rhythm-based artists. The album gets good critical buzz, but only sells a handful of copies. The group releases a follow-up, which also barely makes a ripple. Members of the band split off, and the third release turns out to be essentially a solo album by the original lead singer.
The albums start showing up in record store cutout bins. They still don’t do all that well, but it seems that just about everyone who buys their records ends up starting their own band. And years after the band had broken up, they became a cult favorite band, beloved by a passionate base.
No, we’re not telling the story of the Velvet Underground. Well, okay it is the VU’s story, but it is also the tale of Big Star. The Memphis foursome, made up of former Box Tops lead singer Alex Chilton, guitarist Chris Bell, bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens, put together a sweet and spicy sound, mixing rock and swooning ballads and becoming one of the first power pop bands.
It has now been 50 years since the release of the debut album #1 Record, which has become considered a bit of a lesser-known classic, as did the second album Radio City. Guitarist Bell left the band to go solo after the release of Radio City, although his solo album I Am the Cosmos was not released until after his 1978 death in a car crash. Hummel also left the band after Radio City to finish college, eventually working for Lockheed Martin for decades before his death of cancer in 2010.
Chilton and Stephens reunited in 1993 and toured on and off for many years until Chilton had a fatal heart attack, also in 2010. Stephens returned to his day job – running Ardent Records, the formerly Stax-distributed label that Big Star had recorded for all those years earlier. It seemed like Stephens would never play the music again, until he announced this limited 50th anniversary tour celebrating the band.
However, this isn’t just the case of a classic band touring with one surviving member and a bunch of kids young enough the be the sons (or grandsons) of the original artists. For the Big Star 50 tour, members of some of the most respected alt-rock bands of the 90s – and all Big Star fans – came together to make up the rest of the band. These included Mike Mills (of REM), Pat Sansone (of Wilco), Chris Stamey (of the dBs) and Jon Auer (of the Posies).
In fact, Auer (and his former Posies cohort Ken Stringfellow) had toured with Chilton and Stevens in the revamped Big Star on and off from 1993 to 2010, when Chilton died. They even did a 2005 album together called In Space. (Stringfellow is no longer involved with Auer or Big Star due to fall out from a series of 2021 sexual abuse allegations.) Therefore, Auer has been playing this music well longer than half of the original Big Star members ever did.
And the other new “band” members here obviously had the chops and the love for the music to make this show rock. There was also a guest appearance for this show on two songs by Adam Weiner, lead singer of the band Low Cut Connie.
The concert was split into two acts. First, they played the entirety of the #1 Record album – in order. Then after a brief intermission they came back and played a bunch of fan favorites – a great deal of which came from Radio City, but they also did some cool unexpected rarities – including a simply gorgeous version of Bell’s solo single “I Am the Cosmos.”
All five musicians (six if you count special guest Weiner, who played on two songs and sang one) traded off on lead vocals and instruments. Band favorites like “Don’t Lie to Me,” “Ballad of El Goodo” and “Jesus Christ” sounded fantastic, peaking with a stellar version of “September Gurls” featuring Mills on vocals.
Still, to this day, it’s a complete mystery that this band never became huge. At least we got the opportunity to bask in their stellar songbook for one more night.
Copyright ©2022 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: December 10, 2022.
Photos by Jay S. Jacobs © 2022. All rights reserved.