Live in Memphis documents what was supposed to be an end of sorts. Big Star had reunited in 1993, with original members Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens recruiting Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow — both members of the Posies — to join them in the band. They had played a show in Columbia, Missouri, which was recorded, and the band’s second life took off from there. The 1994 show documented here was a homecoming for Chilton and Stephens, but it was also touted as the band’s “farewell U.S. performance” on gig posters. Though this didn’t hold true — the band played Los Angeles three days later — there is a sense of urgency and occasion surrounding the performance.
The album, also available on DVD, is the first officially filmed, full Big Star concert, and it comes alongside reissues of Chris Bell’s I Am the Cosmos and the Big Star box set Keep an Eye on the Sky. Despite some extra tracks on I Am the Cosmos, these other two releases feel more like holiday fodder than necessary sets, but Live in Memphis feels more like a gift to fans, the kind of thing Big Star completists can and should jump on. Though it’s not the original line-up, these guys play awfully well together here and Chilton sounds as hypnotic as ever at the center of these songs.
The highlights may not surprise. The album opens with an underwhelming version of “In the Street”, only because there’s no soundboard feed on the cut and so it sounds like your average bootleg. From there, though, the sound is crisp enough, the kind of live album that avoids post-recording overdubs in favor of authentically capturing the moment. “Don’t Lie to Me” churns with ragged energy. “Ballad of El Goodo” seems to stretch out into the space of 330 Beale Street. Chilton grins through a question — “You gonna get born now?” — before launching into a jangling version of “Jesus Christ”. The late-set, one-two punch of “September Gurls” and “Big Black Car” show the 1994 version of Big Star had range. They could move from straight-on propulsion to intricate texture and back again.
The set leans on great Big Star tunes, and with good reason, but it also has a few surprises. Chief among them is the band’s version of Chris Bell’s “I Am the Cosmos”. Sung by Auer, it’s a brilliant version of a classic song, one that reminds you of Bell’s power as a songwriter and key member of the original band. There are also some interesting covers here, including a bouncing romp through T. Rex’s “Baby Strange” and a bright sprint through the Kinks’ “Till the End of the Day”. There’s also a take on “The Girl From Ipanema” that sounds playful if a bit lacking, and the set closes with a version of Todd Rundgren’s “Slut” that feels like one final burst of energy from the band, with Chilton howling and speak-singing his way through the verses with so much personality you can almost hear him smiling.
Perhaps the album’s biggest asset is how it alters these songs in a live setting. Big Star was always a pristine, tight studio band. Their records are classic because they are so carefully constructed. Live in Memphis pays tribute to that pop sheen by scuffing it up a bit. Chilton and Stephens seem to be finding joy anew in playing these songs at this time, which Auer and Stringfellow both pay tribute to Big Star proudly and become a part of that joy with each tune. If the audio recording itself can be unremarkable, the rough zeal and personality that deliver these songs often overcomes any questions of fidelity. The crowd, too, plays a role here, welcoming Big Star home and reminding them, with each wide-open cheer, of the band’s legend status in its own home town. Live in Memphis is ultimately unassuming but effective, an honest account of this time in Big Star’s history and a reminder of the group’s considerable talent and charms. If you’re looking for a new corner of the Big Star universe, this is a pretty solid one to explore.