Michael Stipe Leads Big Star Tribute

Michael Stipe, March 2007. Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage

Big Star’s Third, a tribute to the 1974 Big Star album Third/Sister Lovers, featuring Michael Stipe and Mike Mills of R.E.M., Normal Blake, Jody Stephens, Chris Stamey, Matthew Sweet, Ira Kaplan, Tift Merritt and various others
Mason Hall, Baruch College, New York, NY
March 26, 2011

Aural Highlight: Tift Merritt proving that “Thirteen” isn’t just for sad indie boys.

Obligatory Viral Moment: Michael Stipe — a guy who hasn’t had hair in, what, two decades — using a blow dryer on the grand finale, a cover of the Box Tops’ “The Letter.”

Visual Highlight: Mike Mills’ little cha-cha dance during the “Jesus Christ” intro.

Best Show Ever Index: 25% (The Big Star fan base skews old and indier than thou, and 75% of the audience probably saw Alex Chilton play superior gigs with his latter-day incarnation of the band.)

Baruch College’s Mason Hall, at 23rd and Lexington in New York City, is big enough to host orchestral concerts and dramatic productions, so on Saturday night, when Big Star’s drummer Jody Stephens finished walking from his drum kit to the center-stage microphone, he may have meant his first words literally.

“That was a long journey,” said Stephens, lone surviving member of the beloved Memphis power-pop group.

He might also have been talking about the album — Big Star’s revered Third/Sister Lovers — that he and an all-star ensemble were two songs into performing. To Stephens’ left sat full string and horn sections, while a line of famous fans — including Michael Stipe, Matthew Sweet and Yo La Tengo frontman Ira Kaplan — waited backstage for their turns to sing.

Led by dBs founder Chris Stamey, the Third tribute band debuted in December 2010 at the Chapel Hill rock club Cat’s Cradle, and returned last month for a show at the University of North Carolina’s Playmakers Theatre. Saturday marked the group’s first out-of-state gig, and while there were plenty of miscues, flubbed notes and awkward pauses between songs, the vague sense of confusion suited the source material, an intensely personal, sonically adventurous album frontman Alex Chilton never viewed as a Big Star project. The performance was inspired and imperfect, like the music on which it was based.

Third/Sister Lovers represents the late Chilton at the height of his powers. This was evident Saturday night, as the band recreated the album’s beguiling range of sounds and moods. Matt McMichaels, leader of the Mayflies, kicked things off “Kizza Me,” a straight-up barroom rocker, while Kaplan followed with the yearning “O, Dana,” one of the evening’s many emotional 180s. R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills rediscovered his religion on the revelatory “Jesus Christ,” and later on, a beanie-clad Stipe — looking like he’d just returned from a voyage with Steve Zissou — sang “Kanga Roo” with a willowy moan.

Following album closer “Thank You, Friends” — done, appropriately enough, as an all-together-now full-cast sing-along — the band flipped through earlier sections of the Big Star songbook. Singer-songwriter Tift Merritt stole the first half of the encore, outshining McMichaels and Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake, with her portions of the achy, wide-eyed ballad “Thirteen.” Blake struck back two songs later with a showstopper of his own, an acoustic version of “I’m In Love With a Girl.”

“Now we’re going to do a song about that song,” Stamey said, segueing nicely into the Replacements’ “Alex Chilton.” It would have been a fine finale, but Stipe didn’t show up only to sing one song. He returned for “The Letter,” the hit single Chilton penned in 1967 as the 16-year-old leader of the Box Tops. In the final bars, Stipe grinned as he fired up a blow dryer and aimed it at the microphone, mimicking the whoosh of a fast train or air-o-plane, bringing the long journey — Chilton’s, Big Star’s and heck, R.E.M.’s — back to its point of origin.

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