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Big Star’s ‘Third’ – Enmore Theatre, Sydney 23/01/14

Written by Donné Restom on January 24, 2014

This all-star recreation of cult band Big Star’s album Third (also know as Sister Lovers), a feature performance for Sydney Festival 2014, could be described in similar language to the album itself – the oft-quoted “shambling wreck” alongside “impassioned, erratic and stark” come to mind.

Here, though, the observable decay of Alex Chilton’s mind and spirit was not the cause. Instead, the culprits were too many ingredients and too many songs, the result falling short of “cult” and only slightly long of “RSL club variety show”.

Ken Stringfellow opened with with Eden Ahbez’s Nature Boy, sitting in stark contrast to Tim Rogers’ take on Dana – proof that sobriety is still not a prerequisite for singing rock ‘n’ roll, nor does showmanship make up for a lack of rehearsal. Kurt Vile’s take on Stroke It Noel framed him as an awkward contestant on The X-Factor.

But just when it was starting to look like we were in for a 2-hour talent show, Jody Stephens — the only remaining member of the original band — stepped out from behind the drums to take the mic. Blue Moon opened with lush strings, and Jody’s singing allowed the show’s first glimpse of honesty or continuity.

This was followed by Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power, singing the Velvet Underground’s Femme Fatale with her special knack of not only bringing a sincerity to the songs she covers, but making each one sound like she had written it herself. Things were warming up.

Dave Faulkner introduced Downs with, “This is a pretty fucked up album actually,” and then continued to do a pretty good version – for a first go. With the showy opening numbers out of the way, and Rogers back in the bar where he belonged, Kim Salmon’s performance of Holocaust opened up the orchestra to sweep us into some truly beautiful musical moments, including Brett Harris’ performance of Kangaroo and the lush duet between Skylar Gudasz and Stringfellow, Dream Lover.

Someone thought it was important not to get too cosy, though, as even the outstanding drum features on You Can’t Have Me from Stephens’ and Bree Van Reyk weren’t enough to hide the truth. That RSL scene was closing in fast, and Thank You Friends gathered all on stage for the big finale.

Skylar proved she was the only one amongst them who actually knew the songs, and Kurt wandered about in the background, proving that all this team-spirit song-and-dance stuff was not his happy place. Chan made no attempt at pretending to join in, instead taking it upon herself to throw the roses, wave the waves and signal that, yes, Big Star’s Third had been played.

Then came the encore. And not just any encore – this was an encore that equalled the length of the show itself. Arguably, the only person capable of successfully pulling off this length of encore is Prince. And this was no Prince.

This encore was comparable to arriving home after a long night of drinking, when nobody wants to go to sleep and you end up doing shots of the overly sweet lychee liqueur that’s been gathering moths in the back of the cabinet. Frankly, the show should have just gone to bed.

But somehow, someone decided that eluding the reality of the completion of this one-off extravaganza was worth the sloppiness of continuing the party. Thus, in its own way, Big Star’s Third was a perfect example of what it wished to represent.

Correction: It was earlier printed that Mike Mills opened the show with ‘Nature Boy’.

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