An invaluable piece of the Big Star puzzle.
Often more legend than band, Big Star is one of the most storied should’ve-beens in popular music. There was no reason the band should not have lived up to its name; it had the requisite characteristics of pop idols and great songs. That the group has posthumously been afforded a fraction of the praise and adulation it’s long deserved is scant consolation, and that it was never able to experience this at its peak is borderline tragic. Live at Lafayette’s Music Room captures the band in its prime, recorded between the release of its debut, the ironically-titled #1 Record, and follow-up release Radio City. Often thought of as the epitome of power pop, here Big Star sounds like much more than that, taking the elements of the genre and stripping them back to their rock ‘n’ roll roots. The band consistently delivered catchy hooks and melodies, but with a healthy dose of rock ‘n’ roll muscle.
By the time of this 1973 performance, Chris Bell had departed the group, his friction with Alex Chilton having become too much. While his presence is certainly missed, the remaining trio of Chilton, Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens proves themselves to be a tough, lean unit capable of imbuing their music with a level of musicality and melodicism that puts them in the company of some of the great power trios. Opening track “When My Baby’s Beside Me” sets the tone, the band sounding both tight and loose at the same time, the music at once well-polished and ramshackle. This lends the music an authenticity and humanity that can be lost in some of the more sterile power pop of the era.
Of course, Big Star wasn’t merely a power pop group, but rather the power pop group. And despite what often sounds like a less-than-engaged audience, it gives each performance its all, playing both well-known and beloved originals like “In the Street” and “Thirteen” as well as a wide range of covers. The latter selections help make it sound like the best possible bar band one could hope to stumble on (the Replacements notwithstanding). From T. Rex (“Baby Strange,” complete with several sloppy false-starts) to the Flying Burrito Brothers (“Hot Burrito No. 2”) to Todd Rundgren (“Slut”), these choice covers show the band to not only have been tastemakers, but also possessors of impeccable taste themselves. That they fit seamlessly into their set of originals speaks to the level of quality of the originals.
Some might argue that the vocals are far weaker than any self-respecting power pop band should be, but there’s a quality of naked honesty in the at-times shaky vocals of Chilton, Hummel and Stephens. The latter’s lead on “Way out West” is particularly affective, the roughshod quality an asset to the song’s pleading sentiments: “Why don’t you come on back from way out west / and love me, we can work out the rest.” It’s a prime example of the pathos inherent in the band’s best moments (see also: “Thirteen”).
Previously released as part of the Keep an Eye on the Sky box set, Live at Lafayette’s Music Room offers those wondering what all the fuss is about to experience it for themselves without having to spring for the four-disc collection (though they might find a heightened interest and/or desire to do so anyway). To hear the band in its hometown in this period is an invaluable piece of the Big Star puzzle and an essential listen for long-time fans and neophytes alike.