It seems almost incongruous for such a famously ramshackle album to be given the deluxe live treatment at the Barbican but such is the fate afforded to Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers album. Following the deaths of all members, bar drummer Jody Stephens, ex-dB’s man Chris Stamey anointed himself as touring director of this mass ensemble tribute to the final album from Alex Chilton and co., attracting a formidable cast of guest musicians to bring the skewed power pop sounds to the big stage.
The album itself was famously recorded amid scenes of general debauchery and chaos. When the record label heard an early draft of Downs, the band saw fit to deconstruct the song entirely, removing any commercial clout from its presence. The charm of the album often lies in the unfinished nature of many of the tracks, the insane, out-of-place drum solos appearing from nowhere and the bruised melancholy of Chilton’s voice, already world weary at the tender age of 24.
The staging of this album presents a significant problem – not just the mortal absence of key players but how to recreate the inspired chaos live on stage. Throughout the performance, Stamey very much maintains his role as musical director – he is forever giving directions to his co-musicians and maintains a precious attachment to every note played and sung. But centre stage was taken by the fifteen singers or so – including drummer Stephens – who swapped roles for each song on the album and a second half consisting of a Big Star/Alex Chilton/Chris Bell best-of revue. This constantly floating approach worked on occasion – R.E.M.’s Mike Mills took great delight in blasting out the chorus of Jesus Christ, Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan was a perfect fit for O, Dana while Robyn Hitchcock positively inhabited the entirety of Downs, aided by Mills bouncing a basketball as percussion nearby.
The ubiquitous Terry Edwards conducted the string section – or, more pertinently, resembled a high priest giving holy orders – but the adornments presented problems of their own in that some of the arrangements seemed too cheesy, almost too respectful of the album. What Chilton would have made of the over-egged productions of Femme Fatale and first-act closer Thank You Friends is alarming to consider; however, when it hit the mark, it did with aplomb, particularly during Sharon Van Etten’s performance of You Can’t Have Me, bolstered into a boozy anthem with her delivery coated in relish.
Ray Davies’ unannounced appearance at the end added a certain gravitas to the proceedings. The Kinks man related how himself and Chilton were neighbours in New Orleans and spoke of collaborating on a mooted Big Star album before Chilton’s untimely demise. Davies’ renditions of ‘Till The End Of The Day – a Kinks song covered on Third/Sister Lovers – and The Letter were raucous and involved all other participants, turning the Barbican stage into a free-for-all, with everyone clamouring for space and microphones.
Stamey’s invigilation of the evening was impressive throughout and despite the numerous handovers, the assembled throng raced through the entire two sets. However, an entire event created around a carousel of singers and performers was always going to be difficult to pull off and while the audience reception was undoubtedly positive, there was a sense that perhaps less performers and more focus would provide a more worthy tribute to such a cultish album.