Reviewed by Harry Kaplan
Irony. The band was called “Big Star” but they were anything but. This recording was made in their hometown of Memphis. TN and they had to explain to the home crowd who they were. Maybe they were kidding, but not by much. There were two bands from this era that put out timeless music but had heartbreaking stories: Badfinger and Big Star.
It had been said about The Velvet Underground (VU) that everyone that bought a VU album started a band. The same can be said about Big Star. They were roughly 15 years ahead of their time as evidenced by the list that is about to unfold. Bands that owe a shit ton to Big Star are the following: Lemonheads, Son Volt, Wilco, REM, and of course the Replacements. The Mats even have a song that pays homage to Big Star’s leader, Alex Chilton. And that is not an all inclusive list, there are more, lots more. One listen and it’s clear to hear that they really painted the musical landscape starting in the 80s and beyond.
Their writing was honest and intelligent, their musical arrangements are legendary. And their chemistry is off the charts. This is one of those intangibles that is not easily articulated, but the music and the personnel just work so well together. I really can’t get more specific because I am not sure what really sets Big Star apart from the other bands but there is definitely something there. They are certainly more popular and well known now than they were when together.
The fact that they never got any fame or fortune is quite tragic, but do not despair. This album really takes me there. I wanted to say takes me back there, but I was only seven when this was played and recorded in May of 1973. Not only did Big Star tackle their own material, they also used covers to bolster their set. While their contemporaries were playing covers by the Beatles, Stones, and Led Zep, Big Star was covering The Kinks, Todd Rundgren, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and T-Rex.
Let’s start with the Flying Burrito Brother’s tune, Hot Burrito #2 (Track 13). They took a country song and electrified it and made magic. It’s still country, but the piano and keys in the original version were replaced with some hard driving electric guitar riffs that tear the roof off that mutha’. The spacey quality that the Burrito’s maintained has been augmented with noise, beautiful noise. They are both great, but so different that you don’t have to compare the two, they can both maintain separate existences.
While we are on the cover wagon, let’s explore the Todd Rundgren song, Slut (Track 16). Again, Big Star takes it to the top level completely. Another example of equally great, but not competing with each other. Rundgren’s original version is more rooted in that early rock n’ roll sound, complete with a horn section. Big Star stripped this song down and rebuilt a model where the horns are replaced with loud wailing guitars. It’s clear that Big Star is having immense fun with this song. The happiness comes through the speakers.
Then we get to Big Star originals. These songs are like fine wine, they do blossom with age. Just one more example that Big Star truly was ahead of their time. Don’t Lie To Me (Track 12) is the perfect specimen of this. This song really does sound more like 1985 that it does 1973. This is the ultimate stretched out jam song. The perfect length at just over four minutes. It is riveting and ends at the moment when it could become self indulgent or unimaginative.
Big Star: Live At Lafayette’s Music Room is really the next best thing to being there. And since that is not an option, this audio is all we have. And I for one am grateful. If you are a Big Star fan, you probably already own this. If not, you need to get moving and this is a good place to start.