Tour Diary: Brett Harris at Big Star's Third at Mason Hall, NYC

Music Features Brett Harris
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As a pop musician and a Southerner, it didn’t take long for Big Star to show up on my radar. Friends turned me on to #1 Record and Radio City, and I have been obsessed ever since. Third/Sister Lovers, however, was a different story. Like so many others, I had all but overlooked the album. That changed a year ago, when Chris Stamey asked me to be a part of a show he was planning. That show became a fully orchestrated live performance of Third, which debuted in North Carolina last year and this past weekend was performed in New York by an all-star cast.

As I studied the album and heard the stories of those who lived through the making of it, I found that the collection of songs resonate with me as few others had ever done. Now, I see Third as one of the most important records ever made, a guidepost in making music that comes from an honest place. Here is my journal from the week’s events:

Thursday, March 24, 2011

4:30 a.m.: Wake up and get packed. Seriously starting to regret staying up late watching Portlandia clips on Hulu.

6:00 a.m.: Meet up with member of the show’s orchestra and friend/ producer Jeff Crawford and leave Durham, N.C. to begin the rainy drive north.

3:00 p.m.: Welcome to New Jersey.

4:00 p.m.: Arrive in Lower East Side for a duet show with Jeff. We’re joined by Django Haskins, leader of NC’s The Old Ceremony and singer/ emcee for Big Star Third. Spend the evening playing songs and hanging out with friends in town for the weekend show. Find a place to watch the NCAA tournament and call it a night.

Friday, March 25, 2011

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9:00 a.m.: Morning off. It’s a balmy 30 degrees. It was 85 degrees when I left home. Take a cold but beautiful walk through Central Park and visit some favorite haunts on the Upper West Side.

6:00 p.m.: Arrive at the rehearsal studio, where the band — including Jody Stephens, Mike Mills, Chris Stamey, and Mitch Easter — is already at work. On keys is Charles Cleaver, who masterfully handles the complex piano parts that were played by the legendary Jim Dickinson. Django and I take turns standing in for the guest vocalists. Despite rehearsing since early in the afternoon, the band maintains a relaxed yet focused demeanor as stories and jokes fly around the room. Yet as each song is counted in, there is an intensity in the performances that makes each take chilling.

9:45 p.m.: Michael Stipe arrives, and we launch into the beautifully haunting “Kangaroo” and “The Letter,” Alex Chilton’s hit with the Box Tops and our show’s finale. Rehearsal ends at 11 p.m., and I head to Brooklyn for the night.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

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1:00 p.m.: Arrive at Baruch College’s Mason Hall, already a blur of activity. Sound check is going on, and for the first time the entire ensemble is present, including the expanded orchestra. Film crews for an upcoming Big Star documentary move about the hall, finding the best spots to capture every moment. I wait to rehearse my parts and watch as Matthew Sweet and Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo run through “Big Black Car” and “Take Care” with the orchestra. Meanwhile, Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub and Tift Merritt sit in the front row of the hall, running through a stunning version “Thirteen.” Even with additional players and singers, the same sense of excitement and camaraderie present at last year’s North Carolina performances exists here. Everyone seems nearly giddy at the opportunity to present these songs alongside those who share a love of this music.

5:00 p.m.: Sound check ends, and we break to get ready and reconvene in the green room. With this many people involved, some who are performing these songs for the first time, I expect backstage to be tense. On the contrary, I find what resembles a warm gathering of old friends. Curious to learn more about the role Third played in shaping other artists, I ask Tift Merritt and Norman Blake about their first encounter with the album. I am struck by the similarity in their stories and in those others. Merritt, who wore out a cassette of Big Star songs given to her by a friend when she was 19, was drawn to the band’s lyrical point of view and the way the songs felt like the South, evoking images of “vacant lots, cigarettes, and restlessness.” Blake, who played with both Chilton and Stephens, discovered the album when friends in Glasgow, including Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream, passed it around. He tells me about going to see Alex play at Glasgow Tech in the mid-’80s and how he boldly ventured backstage to meet his hero. With a tone of deep sincerity that made me feel like it happened yesterday, Blake tells me about the time Alex repaid the favor years later by visiting Teenage Fanclub when they played New Orleans.

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8:00 p.m.: After a delay due to lines of people wrapped around the building getting through security, opening band (and core of the orchestral ensemble) Lost in the Trees takes the stage.

9:00 p.m: SHOWTIME! Django sets the tone for the evening with a splendid rendition of “Nature Boy.” From there, it takes off with rocker “Kizza Me” and never looks back. I watch as those new to the show geek out, witnessing the songs they have cherished for so long come to life. I notice how no one is leaving the side of the stage but instead hanging out with each other, singing along, dancing and applauding loudly.

10:00 p.m.: I join Michael Stipe on stage to sing “Kangaroo.” Mind = blown.

10:05 p.m.: “Thank You, Friends” performed by a host of singers, with everyone taking turns singing the verses.

10:10 p.m.: An encore of insane proportions, including the aforementioned “Thirteen,” two of Chris Bell’s songs sung by Norman Blake and yours truly and Mitch Easter leading a searing version of The Kinks’ “Til the End of the Day” in honor of Ray Davies, Alex’s friend and neighbor in New Orleans who had wanted to be at the show but was unable to come.

10:45 p.m.: Michael Stipe returns to the stage to lead “The Letter,” complete with the original string and horn arrangements, and employs the use of a hair dryer to re-create the “aero plane” sounds on the record.

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11:00 p.m.: Jody steps out from behind the drums to deliver a moving thank you and to dedicate the performance to the memory of Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Andy Hummel, and Jim Dickinson. Exhausted but energized by the crowd’s response, we make our way to the green room, where an exuberant crowd is talking about their highlights of the night.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

12:00 p.m.: Maybe it was all going too well. When I meet Jeff to head home I learn that his van has been broken into overnight. Thankfully, the thief is caught in the act and flees with only an iPod and some CDs. We make the long drive home sans passenger window, but in light of the weekend we have just had, we don’t seem to care.

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