This past Saturday at the Wilshire Ebell Theater in L.A., the Wild Honey Foundation held a star-studded show honoring the classic power pop band, Big Star. Wild Honey Foundation has been throwing tribute concerts since 1994 to raise money for various charity organizations, and this show was done to promote the Autism Think Tank. Trunkworthy, a website which showcases underappreciated yet overachieving films, tv shows and music of our time, was the co-sponsor for the evening, which is appropriate because Big Star did not become widely appreciated until about the early ’90s, well after the band broke up and founding member Chris Bell had died at the age of 27. The driving musical force behind the evening though was Chris Stamey (originally of ’80s power pop greats, the dBs, and numerous solo projects) who had come up with the idea for a Big Star tribute concert three years earlier, wrote most of the musical arrangements and booked many of the performers. In the past, Stamey had performed with Alex Chilton, lead singer of Big Star, on solo projects as well as on various Big Star-related revival projects.
The evening was filled with amazing musicians reaching the heights of their talents. Audience members were filled with smiles as they swayed around and/or leaned against their friends shoulders versus the serious contemplative looks that crowds tend to have at sit down charity gatherings. The main band featured Jody Stephens—the only original member of Big Star still alive—on drums and some vocals, Chris Stamey on guitars, legendary alt-pop producer, musician Mitch Easter on guitars, and Jon Auer, co-founder of the Posies, on additional guitars (the Posies having had their own history of working hard to revive the Big Star legacy in the ’90s). While Mike Mills of R.E.M. made many appearances (including playing a basketball and a toy gun in Stamey’s various arrangements), the real star of the of the show was Auer’s fellow Posies co-founder Ken Stringfellow. Stringfellow perfectly channeled the voice of Chilton on many of the Big Star tracks, and was the perfect harmony when Pete Yorn performed a devestatingly beautiful version of Chris Bell’s I Am The Cosmo during the show’s encore.
Yorn’s cover might have been the best performance of the evening, but with so many good ones it’s hard to tell. Stringfellow started out the evening knocking off all socks with Feel, and two songs later Mills had everyone giggling during his rendition of In The Street as he pretended to smoke pot. Dean Wareham (Luna, Galaxie 500) and Susanna Hoffs (the Bangles) rendition of Femme Fatale was eerie and sexy, especially when Wareham, after giggling, went straight-faced to leer at Hoffs. It was hard to deny Jason Falkner’s pure rock ‘n’ roll swagger as he and Auer crushed their performance of Don’t Lie To Me or the Bangles’ joyousness when they played September Girls, which they’ve covered since their early days. The evening was filled with so much talent and celebration that you can’t really whittle it down to one highlight, you have to take the evening as a whole experience. That being said, the whole experience was made extra amazing from the string section, because damn did they support the hell out of performers like Aimee Mann, Tommy Keene and Brett Harris throughout the evening, as they were conducted by the inimitable composer, producer singer/songwriter, Van Dyke Parks.
While every performer was strong, the younger performers often seemed not to be able to hold their own as well. Although her voice was beautiful, Sarabeth Tucek seemed dull and lifeless, unable to engage the audience. Grouplove, although usually full of energy and life as they exude an intense confidence at their own shows, appeared nervous and intimidated as they seemed to go out of their way to let their fellow musicians take the lead. Skylar Gudasz and Django Haskins both had beautiful voices and held their own when taking on solo’s, but often got lost when performing alongside the more seasoned Mills and Stringfellow. One must note though how well Haskins led the ensemble in Holocaust, and he was also a wonderful emcee throughout, keeping his introductions short, sweet and to the point.
Most of the evening went off without a hitch. At one point when the performers where having trouble finding a guitar, Stringfellow made banter by pretending to start a joke: “Alex Chilton walks into a bar…” After which his compatriots joked about how often Alex drank when he was still alive. Jody Stephens’s love for Big Star was very apparent from the smiles he had on while drumming and the care in his voice when singing. His fellow performers joked by calling him an “Up and coming young talent.”
The show included a performances of Big Star’s two albums, #1 Record and Third/Sister Lovers, followed by an encore of various other songs from the band’s second album, Radio City as well as from Chilton and Bell’s solo careers. When the performers hit curfew they decided to keep playing anyway without the amps. So the evening concluded with Dan Wilson and Susanna Hoffs performing an acoustic version of I’m In Love With A Girl.
Photos by Annie Lesser.