In 1973, Big Star was in a state of flux. Founding member and co-leader Chris Bell had left after the failure of the group's debut album #1 Record and the band was unsure of its future. The rest of the group was persuaded to perform at a now-legendary showcase show for the Memphis Rock Writers Convention in May of that year, which led to the group entering the studio to record their second album, Radio City.
What isn't as widely known is that this three-man version of Big Star played the same venue four months earlier opening for the R&B band Archie Bell & The Drells. The show was recorded and originally included on the excellent, albeit out of print, Keep An Eye On The Sky box set. The show has thankfully been saved from audio oblivion by Omnivore Recordings and is available as a standalone disc Big Star - Live At Lafayette's Music Room.
In spite of the fact that the band's first album tanked, that the R&B audience couldn't have cared less about this power pop band opening their show and bassist Andy Hummel's view that Big Star wasn't much of a live band, this performance smokes and shows what the group could have done as a live unit had they stayed together. A driving "When My Baby's Beside Me" opens the show. Played at a slightly faster pace than the album version, one would not realize this was a band playing a gig because it was contractually obligated to. This is the sound of a group trying to win over an indifferent crowd. Chilton takes some strong guitar leads while Jody Stephen's powerful drumming propels the track.
Bell's loss is noticeable on his own "You Give Me Life," particularly in the harmonies. Still, Alex Chilton offers a heartfelt vocal on this mid-tempo rocker. "She's A Mover," which would feature on Radio City, shows off a sleazy groove and killer drumming from Stephens. For a band that hadn't played live much, Big Star was a tight, confident band, no doubt helped by the fact that even at age 22, this was old hat for Chilton, who had been fronting The Box Tops at the age of 16.
Stephens' takes lead vocals on Hummel's "Way Out West." While not as strong as Chilton or Bell's material, the band gives a competent rendition with tight harmonies and ringing guitars. The group really sells the performance, not just here, but throughout the show as well. Chilton gives an excellent vocal on "The Ballad Of El Goodo," one of his best songs. Bell's absence on the harmonies is missed here but Chilton's voice makes it a compelling listen nonetheless. Similarly, Chilton really pushes the upper range of his voice on "In The Street." Bell's massive contributions to that first album become evident when he isn't there to replicate them, but three quarters of Big Star is still a lot better than most bands.
The show ends with a strong version of another Radio City track "O My Soul." The band delivers and Chilton, old pro that he was, does his best to win over a mostly indifferent crowd. The disc also includes a download code to an interview with Chilton and Hummel from summer 1972, which provides an interesting look at the band while they were still together.
Big Star was a talented band with excellent musicians that should have been more popular than they were. Fate and bad timing worked against them at the time, but history has been kind to the group and their songs. They also could bring it live, as evidenced by Big Star - Live At Lafayette's Music Room. The disc is well worth a listen as it helps change the perception that Big Star was more of a studio band.