Wednesday, July 30, 2014

When the Posies Backed Big Star

Earlier this week, Swiss Adam at Bagging Area had a post about the Posies that instantly took me back to the summer of 1993. I'm constantly blogging about that time in my life because I had the good fortune of working at a record store then, and it really was as wonderful a job as you may have imagined. Anyway, there were a dozen or so new releases that summer my peers and I took a shine to and seemed to spin at the shop daily. One of them was a live Big Star reunion of sorts called 'Columbia.' Here's how Karen Shook summed up the show in the liner notes:

You know, it never hurts to ask. With all that in mind, a college radio station in Columbia, Missouri, asked Alex Chilton a simple question and got a minor miracle in return. And so a few weeks later, at KCOU's behest, there we all were under a big striped tent and the spring sun. Alex, Jody Stephens, the Posies' Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer as delighted hired hands, and a few hundred people who have loved Big Star so long and so fiercely that even 20 years' worth of the record industry hasn't succeeded in erasing its memory. What was it like? I stop making sense when I try to talk about it. We waited, and watched, and pinched ourselves. And when those chiming guitar chords, those shiny choruses appeared like they'd never been away, I wouldn't have traded places with God. They plated some pop songs, I guess, and we sang along. And as Jody beamed out from behind the kit and the Posies played their hearts out, I thought I saw Alex Chilton listening to his past and smiling.

The late music critic Robert Palmer had a chance to dig a little deeper with Stephens and Chilton about the April 25, 1993, show. Here is a condensed version:

Stephens got the initial call from the student organizers of the University of Missouri's annual Springfest, asking whether he'd consider doing a Big Star set if Alex agreed. He says he "didn't want to be the first to say no." To everyone's surprise, Chilton didn't say no either, despite the fact that he has scrupulously avoided trading on the Big Star name for almost two decades. [He did tell his callers, "You don't have much money, but hey, cool, I'm not doing anything that day."]

It was Stephens who drafted Posies' Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer to round out the new Big Star lineup. Jody credits Stringfellow and Auer with "balancing out Alex the way Chris did. And there were some cliffhanging moments when their playing brought the music around again." Together, the revitalized Big Star made music that sounds so right-on-time, it almost comes as a shock when you recall that these songs were first recorded 20 years ago.

The further adventures of Big Star may never mean more to Alex than any other stop on his lifetime musical odyssey; if they did, he wouldn't be Alex Chilton. But it's evident that the melodic contours and deeply felt existential shorthand of his best Big Star songs still speak to his soul. He sings them as if his life depended on it, particularly "The Ballad of El Goodo," which might be more relevant to his state of mind now than when he wrote it, and his classic astrological torch song "September Gurls." "Hearing Alex's performances reminds you what a great creative player he is," adds Stephens. "Stuff he does off the cuff has more emotional and musical content than most people get from sweating out a part for days."

Even Alex Chilton's celebrated cool begins to warm up a bit when he talks about the concert and this album. "I thought we got a good, screamin' thing going," he says. "It was loose as a goose, and it rocked more than it did the first time around. I was pleased. I mean, there's no point going on-stage and sucking."

As Swiss Adam mentioned, the Posies are one of the power-pop greats, and "Solar Sister" is one of my favorites of that genre, but I will always think of Stringfellow and Auer first as the duo that helped bring Stephens and Chilton together again. Here are four from 'Columbia.' Stephens takes lead vocals on "Way Out West." That's Auer on Chris Bell's solo effort "I Am the Cosmos." (Now there's an album that deserves its own post!) Stringfellow takes his turn on "Back of a Car." Finally, that's Chilton on "The Ballad of El Goodo." To those few under the tent in Columbia that day, I will be forever envious. And thanks for the inspiration, Adam. I had nothing tonight.

Big Star - I Am the Cosmos (Live)
Big Star - The Ballad of El Goodo (Live)
Big Star - Back of a Car (Live)
Big Star - Way Out West (Live)


Swiss Adam said...

My pleasure Brian. Love your comment about how you hope to post tonight after the kids have gone to bed- such is the life of the blogger.

george said...

Brian, never heard of thsi album before. Insteasd of downloading the songs I will seek out the album.

Brian said...

You've made my day. That's why we post, eh?

Séamus Duggan said...

I was lucky enough to catch this incarnation of Big Star in London. Clearly not the same as seeing them first time around but still a wonderful moment.
Their Third album is my favourite, although I love all three. In Space didn't really add anything to their canon. I rarely listen to it but Sister Lovers and Radio City in particular are never far from the play switch.
I also love Chris Bell's I am the Cosmos, which certainly deserves a post of its own.

Brian said...

Hi Seamus. That's really cool that you saw those guys. I never had the pleasure. I remember from your blog you were a big fan. Like you, I wouldn't put Columbia in the company of those other three albums, but it was wonderful daily listening at the record store when it was first released. Before Swiss Adam's recent post that reminded me of Columbia, I had not listened to it for years. I have pulled it out a few times the last week or so, and I'm really enjoying it. I can picture the scene in my mind so vividly.