Big Star ‘#1 Record’ 50th Anniversary Concert in L.A. Has Jody Stephens and Guests Reviving a Rock Classic That Very Slowly Got Its Due

“I never travel too far / Without a little Big Star,” Paul Westerberg of the Replacements famously once sang, getting children by the millions — or at least hundreds of thousands — to check out an under-appreciated band of the ’70s in the 1980s. If you want to hear Big Star’s music played live, that generally involves traveling very far, in a time machine. But not in Los Angeles tonight, where Jody Stephens, the sole surviving original member, will join up with a cast of estimable singers and musicians to present a full evening of Big Star songs, including a full 50th anniversary run-through of the band’s classic debut album, “#1 Record.”

Presented as a benefit for the Wild Honey Foundation — an autism charity that produces a benefit tribute concert at Glendale’s Alex Theatre every year — tonight’s Big Star salute will sport a lineup that includes Susanna Hoffs (which helped popularize the band with the Bangles’ cover of “September Gurls”), the Lemon Twigs, R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, Wilco’s Pat Sansone, the Posies’ Jon Auer, the dBs’ Chris Stamey, Chris Price, Luther Russell and others, plus a small orchestra. They’ll be recreating an album that sounds as fresh now as it did in 1972, followed after an intermission by a good amount of selections from the two Big Star albums that followed before the group flamed out, and material from the solo catalogs of its two frontmen, Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, and a closer from Stephens’ current band, Those Pretty Wrongs.

Tickets are available online here or, if they last until showtime, at the door.

At a rehearsal Friday night at the Alex (a 1920s theater that was not actually rechristened just for this occasion), Stephens and members of the ensemble spoke with Variety about what it means that “#1 Record,” a flop at the time, is being remembered and celebrated a half-century after it seemingly sank into obscurity.

“You know, it’s nice to see it actually happening, with everyone 50 years later saying, ‘Hey, wow, Jody, finally, the 50-year marketing plan — it paid off,’” joked Auer. (He certainly played a part in that not-quite-master plan; on and off from 1993 until Chilton’s death in 2010, Auer and his then-partner in the Posies, Ken Stringfellow, joined Chilton and Stephens in a touring mach II revival of Big Star.)

The “#1 Record” tribute will not be strictly limited to L.A. It presages a short tour of a handful of dates that will go down in December, albeit without the orchestra or most of the guest singers. Those coming gigs will just feature a five-piece band, albeit a fairly all-star quintet, consisting of Stephens on drums, Mills on bass and Sansone, Stamey and Auer on guitar.

It may be a little bit ironic that the debut is getting its revival due now, after there was a Wild Honey benefit and subsequent tour in the mid-2010s themed around the swan song “Big Star’s Third,” a much more peculiar, patchwork and subdued album than “#1 Record.” Wouldn’t it have made more sense to celebrate the most commercial and accessible Big Star album first, then get to “Third” later? And yet there is a substantial cult that likes the final album better than the first, precisely because of its darkness and relative weirdness. “Yeah,” says Auer, “but nothing about Big Star’s career has been very predictable, has it, really?”

One of the unexpected developments has been young people taking a liking to Big Star decades after the group came and went like a shooting star. Among them are the band the Lemon Twigs, consisting of two Long Island brothers now in their 20s, whose devotion to Big Star is well known; they had Stephens sit in on their latest album, and used to perform a Chilton solo song in concert when they were first coming to fame as a teenaged phenomenon.

“I heard them for the first time when I was 14 or 15,” says singer Michael D’Adarrio. “My girlfiend at the time was into Big Star, and then they were my favorite band after that. I became Chilton-obsessed.”

“The man is Chilton-deranged,” corrected his brother, Brian D’Addario.

“It’s a real thrill to play with Jody, because no one plays like Jody,” added Michael, “and all the musicians learned the songs note for note because it’s so important.”

For Stephens, the respect is mutual. “When the tour comes in December, that’ll be a five-piece thing, so this is kind of a one-off,” he said. “It’s pretty exciting to have the Lemon Twigs, Brian and Michael — there’s a lot of energy there — and Susanna Hoffs. Of course Mike Mills, Pat Sensone, Jon Auer and Chris Stamey are kind of core members. This week we also have Luther Russell, my partner in Those Pretty Wrongs, joining us for some things, and we’re doing a pretty long song (from that current band) called ‘It’s About Love,’ because Chris thought it would be appropriate to share with people in this day and age, which it is. And it’s always just mind-blowing to have strings. I try to play quieter drums when the strings are playing, because I’d rather hear them, you know? It’s a unique experience in having an orchestra that joins us and then we pare down to five people — it’s a pretty dynamic performance.”

Singer-songwriter Chris Price, who sings lead on “When My Baby’s Beside Me” and found himself getting roped in to add harmony vocals on other songs during rehearsals, is a big fan of “#1 Record” as the album that contains most of the “hits” and happens to be more rocking — including “In the Street,” which many years later became the theme song for “That ’70s Show,” via a Cheap Trick cover.

“This is definitely their most polished record, of the three,” Price said of “#1 Record.” “It feels like the title was meant to be ironic or tongue-in-cheek, but it is a very polished record that has a ton of real commercial appeal and has endured for 50 years as a one of those pristine, great records of that era. I know they get associated a lot with sort of inspiring every garage band — like everyone who heard them formed a band. But Big Star was making top-tier-sounding records. I mean, the stuff that came out of Ardent in those days was some of the best sounds that anyone was making, especially on ‘#1 Record.’ But obviously all of their albums are great for different reasons. There’s no need to compare the three when you have them all.”

Auer puts the band’s obscurity in their shoulda-been heyday down to label disinterest or lack of ability to promote. “It’s like the record label is the delivery service,” he said backstage. “You can have this great piece of art and if it doesn’t get delivered properly, then no one’s ever gonna receive it. And it happens to a lot of bands, right? But I think Big Star is a big example — arguably the top example — of the band that should have been more successful but wasn’t. To have that much good stuff be that mismanaged for that long, and look at it now… over time it’s risen because of just the sheer quality of it, I think. I mean, ‘Ballad of El Goodo,’ how could that not have been a hit, or ‘September Gurls’? It’s as good as anything you heard on ‘70s radio, easily. It’s shocking. It wasn’t their fault.

“But anyway, we’re here now, right? And you can hear Big Star on a Super Bowl commercial, or I’ve seen Natalie Portman wearing Big Star shirts. I can’t believe it took so long to happen, but I’m glad that Jody’s still around to have it be doing it so well. Because he really is as cool and as good as everybody says he is. It’s refreshing to be honest, to see someone like that getting the attention they deserve. It’s just amazing to see him actually in action now, because he’s really become quite like the kind of frontman and performer too, as well as the spokesperson. Of course he’s the last original surviving member at this point, but there couldn’t be really a more deserving person to be aiming the celebration at.”

Luther Russell, Stephens’ current musical partner in Those Pretty Wrongs and a participant in this weekend’s show, said he was one of those who got into “Third” before “#1.” “I heard about this band Big Star from being a fan of The Replacements when I was a kid. And I was walking around San Francisco with a buddy, 16 or 17, and I bought some records on the street and one of ’em was ‘Big Star’s Third,’ and that’s the one I started with. I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ That was the first one I had, which is a very strange place to start, but then I worked my way backwards. When I did get ‘#1 Record,’ I was like, ‘Oh! This is, like, Beatle-y; it’s very clean pop. Like, I didn’t realize — I thought they were just this weird band. So it’s cool just sitting back and listening to these guys play the first record back, where you get a real appreciation for it. It’s pretty stunning — just good rock ‘n’ roll.”

“Actually,” said Auer, “you could say that ‘#1 Record’ is the true Chris Bell/Chilton collaboration record too, even though it sure sounds like parts of ‘Radio City’ (the middle album) were written by Chris Bell, before they parted ways (prior to its recording).” (Auer’s appreciation for Bell’s contributions is well known, as the Posies made his ‘I Am the Cosmos’ a staple of their set from the late ’80s forward.)

“But I guess ‘Third’ is the cult record. I always think of ‘Third’ as being like Lou Reed’s ‘Berlin’ or something — that dark record. Starting with that is like starting with Lou Reed’s ‘Berlin’ and working your way back to ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ or something.” But when they were making the debut album, Auer relays, “Chilton called it ‘power pop for audiophiles.’”  

The fact that all this mostly volunteer effort is for charity makes the concentration of hours that go into such a careful reproduction worth it. Paul Rock’s Wild Honey charity, which he started to help autistic youth like his own son, has been putting on these benefits since the ’90s, with salutes to the Beatles, the Buffalo Springfield, the Beach Boys, the Band … there seems to be a “B” theme going, although they’ve snuck the Kinks and some others from the alphabet in, too.

“Not to keep heaping praise on people,” said Auer, “but I mean, how many better organizations are there than Wild Honey doing things for the right reason? This definitely qualifies as a labor as a labor of love, and I wholeheartedly support that.”

Said Stephens, “Aside from the music, it’s the people that get together for it that enhances that experience and makes it a community of people getting together. You know, it’s about love,” he added, quoting his own song title. “What can I say?”

Stephens’ ever-amiable presence and still-powerhouse drumming are a big part of the draw for many of the musicians. “Jody was very young — I think he was only 19 or 20 when he recorded the drums for the first album,” said Russell. “That’s pretty staggering, I think, because they’re pretty iconic drum parts. And he does ’em now note for note. And he still looks 19, the son of a bitch.”

“That’s right,” agreed Auer. “If Dorian Gray was a drummer.”

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