Big night for Big Star at Austin’s South by Southwest fest
By Bob Mehr
March 17, 2012
AUSTIN, Texas — In 1972, Memphis band Big Star entered the pop music fray with a big sound and even bigger aspirations. Those dreams went largely unrealized at the time, but 40 years later Big Star has crystallized its decades-long cult status into something more profound and pervasive.
This was confirmed Thursday at the South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival in Austin, Texas, with the presentation of a Big Star documentary and a symphonic concert celebrating the band’s music. Playing opposite much-anticipated festival sets by Bruce Springsteen, and various other big names, the Big Star event managed to pack the city’s Paramount Theatre, and generate a rare buzz amid the din and clatter of this massive industry gathering.
It was just two years ago, at this same conference, that band was on everyone’s minds for a different reason: the sudden, unexpected death of the group’s singer, Alex Chilton, on the eve of a Big Star performance.
Such labyrinthine twists provide the ballast for “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me.” The 93-minute documentary, by New York filmmakers Drew DeNicola, Olivia Mori, and Danielle McCarthy, was screened as a “work in-progress” version at the Paramount. Still, the film was a powerfully evocative piece, eliciting a standing ovation at its conclusion.
Combining little-seen archival footage with new interviews, “Nothing Can Hurt Me” is a textured and nuanced work that explores the story of the band, the majesty of its music, and yet preserves the mystery at the heart of the tale.
“The myth was the first part I was really interested in,” said director DeNicola. “In a way, they were the biggest footnote in rock history; but if you didn’t look at the bottom of the page you’d miss something big.”
The film was followed by an elaborate concert performance of Big Star’s Third album. The 45-person production — which featured numerous guest musicians, including members of R.E.M., the Replacements, the Posies, Lucero, as well as Austin chamber orchestra the Tosca Strings — was the brainchild of dB’s co-leader, noted indie producer and late-’70s Chilton collaborator Chris Stamey.
Recorded in 1975 and released several years later, Third has, in the ensuing decades, taken on mythic proportions. Its creation was colored by the crushing commercial failure of Big Star’s first two LPs, Chilton’s chemically fueled relationship with his girlfriend, singer Lesa Aldridge, and the collapse of the Memphis music industry following the fall of Stax.
For Stamey, the conception story surrounding Third was always secondary to the music — an intricate, imaginative song cycle that had haunted him from the first listen. “There is a myth of degradation and debauchery that surrounds the making of the record. But I would like to speculate that there are many records by Toto or Kansas that were much more debauched,” said Stamey, laughing. “The record came out at a time when the sounds on it were unusual and the techniques were unusual: The people who heard it back then thought ‘What is this music?’ But it was just ahead of its time.”
A former classical composition student, Stamey had long harbored a dream of bringing the album to life onstage as a full orchestral piece. He was finally about to realize that vision when the Big Star camp was decimated: first, with the passing of Third producer Jim Dickinson in 2009, and the subsequent losses of Chilton and bassist Andy Hummel in 2010 — leaving drummer Jody Stephens as the lone surviving member of the group.
Forging ahead, Stamey sought out and studied Third’s ornate multi-track masters. He then commissioned the album’s original arranger, Carl Marsh, to recreate his long-lost charts, while he developed string parts for the remaining songs, much of them based on Chilton’s own isolated guitar tracks.
Stamey and his core group of collaborators, including Stephens, had previously staged the production in North Carolina and New York City. Thursday’s Austin show may have been the most emotionally charged, however, coming as it did after the documentary screening.
“It was felt like one big family backstage — all the people participating and helping to make this happen,” said Stephens of the evening. “With Big Star, people are there — they’ve always been there — for the love of the music. So it really does make for a pretty cool community of folks.”
A pair of Big Star Third shows are already on the books for London and Barcelona this summer. A Memphis performance of Third, possibly paired with a screening of “Nothing Can Hurt Me,” is being discussed for later in the year.
© 2012 Memphis Commercial Appeal.