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Thursday, January 23, 2014

Big Star: Live

BIG STAR: LIVE (1974/1992)

1) September Gurls; 2) Way Out West; 3) Mod Lang; 4) Don't Lie To Me; 5) O My Soul; 6) Interview; 7) The Ballad Of El Goodo; 8) Thirteen; 9) I'm In Love With A Girl; 10) Motel Blues; 11) In The Street; 12) You Get What You Deserve; 13) Daisy Glaze; 14) Back Of A Car; 15) She's A Mover.

Arguably the most symbolic, and the saddest, moment of this album is when, in a short interview that links the two parts of the radio concert (recorded at Ultrasonic Studios in NYC), the an­nouncer/interviewer says, "...I just came across a review of your new album called Radio City, and the guy started off the review by saying, ʽhere it is only January, and we already have the album of yearʼ... you're getting an awful lot of critical acclaim for your new album, it's really good!". "Yeah, that's, uh, nice", replies a quite transparently lemon-faced Chilton, "I hope it sells. We've had critical acclaim before".

Whether this internal panic is somehow reflected in the band's actual live performance is deba­table, but it is hard not to perceive this archival release from that particular point of view — a tense, nervous Chilton, having to cope with the recent loss of yet another band member (Hummel quit right after the recording of Radio City, briefly replaced by John Lightman, who is captured live on this album) and with worried anticipation of whether they might be able to make it this time around. Nowhere does this tension show as strong as on the solo acoustic performance of ʽThe Ballad Of El Goodoʼ, a song that I'd never have thought could work without all the psy­chedelic-gospel harmo­nies and cool flanging guitar effects, but it does work very well, with just a slight extra drop of desperation in each of Alex's "ain't no one going to turn me round", as the man slowly comes to realize that, soon enough, he might be facing a choice of agreeing to be turned round — or to be turned down by circumstances beyond his control and determination.

On the whole, this is not one of those great lost live albums of all time, since Big Star was first and foremost a studio band, only as perfect as the harmonies, the overdubs, and the mixing on each of their songs. But it is still well worth hearing, if only to admire how closely their «mini­malist» lineup (one guitar, bass, drums) comes to recapturing all the essence of their best songs. Even the short acoustic set that Alex generates all on his own in the middle of the performance is fully adequate — I have already mentioned ʽEl Goodoʼ, but ʽThirteenʼ with just a six-string is every bit as gorgeous as the fuller arrangement on #1 Record. (ʽMotel Bluesʼ, a rather whiny folk ramble, is not as good, a song written more for its plaintive lyrics than anything else, and wisely left off the original albums).

A few of the numbers are somewhat botched: I am speaking particularly of the very disappoin­ting choice of ʽSeptember Gurlsʼ for the opening number, since Alex was not able to reproduce that caramelly tone of the original which constitutes about 50% of the song's success, and that is one song that really cannot work with just one guitar and no harmonies. But ʽO My Soulʼ, on the other hand, is terrific, with Lightman in full control of Hummel's quirky bass zoops, Alex playing the funky rhythm parts with perfect precision, and Stephens firing away with as much excitement as he displayed in the studio. Most of the rock-oriented material from Radio City is, in fact, be­yond complaining, particularly when the original songs themselves were good (because no amount of raw live rock'n'roll energy can save something as pointless as ʽMod Langʼ).

My only sorrow is that the material focuses too much on Radio City rather than #1 Record, but this is predictable — with Bell long since out of the band, and the whole radio concert basically serving as a promotional spot, and the «rockier» material of Radio City being altogether more suitable for a live performance, complaining is futile. And who would dare to complain, really, when listening to an obviously troubled musician who can still play his fairly complex guitar lines and sing on key and in tune at the same time? Unless you are a Big Star maniac or some­thing, you probably will not find yourself listening to this all the time, but even one listen may generate some serious extra respect for Chilton both as a human being and as a master craftsman, and from that point of view, Live is an essential archive release, fully deserving of a thumbs up.

Check "Live" (CD) on Amazon

1 comment:

  1. Just a note, "Motel Blues" is by that master of rather whiny and sex-obsessed folk rambles, Loudon Wainwright III.