Total obscurity seems unlikely for any band in our increasingly archived world. For the Memphis-born Big Star, though, that very fate seemed inevitable for quite a long time. Thanks to the hard work of UGA’s Willson Center for the Arts and Humanities and the Slingshot Festival, plus the help of star-studded guests from Athens and beyond, the band’s legacy was kept alive on College Square Saturday evening.
After a brief, string-laden tease of “September Gurls,” Wilco multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone launched into “Kizza Me,” from Big Star’s 1978 release, Third/Sister Lovers. A reverent student of Big Star-inspired power-pop, Sansone was a fine addition to the ensemble.
However somber the song may be, the highlight of the Third portion of the evening was “Holocaust,” with local songstress Thayer Sarrano on lead vocal. Sarrano’s voice sounded justifiably haunted; no one else onstage could have led the bone-chilling song.
Although the event was billed as an homage to Third, much of the set was culled from the band’s near-perfect 1972 debut, #1 Record. Given the setting, “In the Street” sounded especially full of pomp, with Mike Mills on lead vocals. A fiery performance of “The Ballad of El Goodo” rounded out the list of fan favorites.
The presence of Jody Stephens, Big Star’s drummer and the only surviving original member of the band, made the evening even more magical. Stephens sang lead on “For You” and “Blue Moon” from Third as well as “February’s Quiet” from 2005’s In Space, showcasing a beautiful singing voice that hasn’t always been given its due. Behind the kit, Stephens was in command, pounding away with youthful fervor.
Sansone joined Skylar Gudasz on “Thirteen,” a song that had a large portion of the crowd harmonizing along. R.E.M. producer Mitch Easter, credited for his contributions in gathering the personnel for the event, led “Till the End of the Day.” Bill Berry also appeared onstage throughout the evening, providing auxiliary percussion on a number of songs.
An ear-splitting rendition of “September Gurls,” from Big Star’s Radio City, featuring Mills and The dB’s Chris Stamey, finally arrived near 10 p.m. As a crowd trickled out of the downtown area, the entire cast of performers led a sing-along to “Thank You, Friends,” a not-so-subtle hat-tip to everyone involved in putting together the event.
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