Local Current Blog

Review and photos: Big Star Third celebrates a legendary album at First Avenue

Photos by Steven Cohen for MPR

Big Star’s third album has always existed ambiguously, down to its very title. Differing variations of the album have floated around since the band’s attempt at recording a third studio album in 1974. There has never even been a concrete, canonical track listing, despite numerous well-intended attempts. Depending on who you ask, the record is called Third, 3rd, Sister Lovers, or Third/Sister Lovers.

The record is a longstanding enigma, having more in common with Elliott Smith’s posthumous From a Basement on the Hill than other lost albums such as Smile or Lifehouse. It is an album that will never be fully understood, or even presented in a a fully understandable fashion. Under this logic, it makes sense that a version of the record recorded by other musicians could stand as a perfectly valid version of the record.

Enter: the Big Star’s Third touring project. The project’s members have varied over the years, but have largely centered around Jody Stephens (the final surviving original Big Star member) and Chris Stamey of the dB’s. Minneapolis was lucky enough to be one of the cities visited by the traveling revue, as Big Star’s Third performed at First Avenue on Wednesday night—with support from the local Four Voices String Quartet. (The band members also visited our studios to perform a few songs and talk with Bill DeVille.)

A terrific assortment of guest musicians took the Mainroom stage over the course of the evening, starting with the billed performance of Third in its entirety. I was prepared for any variation on the track listing, even going so far as to carry a copy in my pocket to check off the songs as they were performed. Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner launched the proceedings in raucous fashion with the ever-paranoid “Kizza Me,” but as Matt Wilson took the stage to perform “O Dana,” it became apparent that we were going to be jumping around in order—and really, it was the most fitting way to present these songs.

The most riveting moments of the night were probably the performances by Jody Stephens: seeing a Big Star member perform Big Star songs is an opportunity I’m guessing most of the First Avenue audience had not had before and may never have again. Stephens took the lead on “For You” and “Blue Moon,” two quiet standouts from Third.

The thrills seemed to keep coming in succession; each guest performance was worthy of recognition in its own right. Tapes ‘n Tapes’ Josh Grier delivered a terrifically emotional “Nightime”; Chris Stamey perfectly executed two of Third‘s most dire songs, “Holocaust” and “Kanga Roo”; and Mike Mills (!!!) did it all, belting out “Jesus Christ,” bouncing a basketball during “Downs,” working with guest drummer Linda Pitmon on “You Can’t Have Me,” and adding solid bass for the troupe’s entire performance.

One moment that stood out for me in particular was Ken Stringfellow (of Posies fame, and a member of Big Star during their 2000s revival) performing “Stroke It Noel.” I thought of the influence that a band like Big Star had on artists like the Posies, and I thought of the countless hours that an artist like Stringfellow has sung these songs, whether on stage, or singing into a mirror at home, and the deep, sentimental importance all of these songs have for each one of these musicians.

The Third segment wrapped up with an all star “finale” performance of “Thank You Friends,” which was met with raves from the First Avenue audience. As if hearing all the music from a classic record wasn’t enough, the band returned to the stage to perform another mini set of music from Big Star’s other studio albums, as well as the Chris Bell solo tracks “I Am the Cosmos” and “You and Your Sister.” While it was undeniably fun to hear these songs performed, without the unifying album concept, this section took on more of the feeling of a jukebox musical. The set’s momentum waxed and waned, especially because everyone knew it was all building up to “September Gurls” at the end (on the final day of September, no less!).

Big Star Third was an opportunity to hear the music of Big Star, performed by the musicians who drew upon its influence and projected it forward into entirely new generations and genres of music. As this revue is only scheduled to perform two more California shows in the year 2015, it was a rare treasure for this Minneapolis audience, and a night we will not soon forget.

Set list
Kizza Me [Dave Pirner]
O Dana [Matt Wilson]
For You [Jody Stephens]
Nightime [Josh Grier]
Jesus Christ [Mike Mills]
Take Care [Trapper and Tanner Schoepp]
Big Black Car [The Wooldridge Brothers]
Stroke It Noel [Ken Stringfellow]
Blue Moon [Jody Stephens]
Femme Fatale (VU cover) [Brett Harris]
Downs [Ken Stringfellow]
Dream Lover [Skylar Gudasz]
Holocaust [Chris Stamey]
You Can’t Have Me [Mike Mills/Linda Pitmon]
Kanga Roo [Chris Stamey/Brett Harris]
Thank You Friends [“All Star Finale”]
Thirteen [Skylar Gudasz]
You and Your Sister [Brett Harris]
In the Street [Mike Mills/Schoepp Brothers]
Don’t Lie to Me [Josh Grier]
When My Baby’s Beside Me [Dave Pirner/Jim Boquist]
Back of a Car [Dave Pirner]
Way Out West [Jody Stephens]
I Am the Cosmos [The Wooldridge Brothers]
Give Me Another Chance [Matt Wilson]
September Gurls [Mike Mills/Cast]
Try Again
Watch the Sunrise [Brett Harris]