Big Star, “Live at Lafayette’s Music Room”

Big Star
Live at Lafayette’s Music Room
OMNIVORE
9/10

The Memphis denizens that filed in early for a good seat at Lafayette’s Music Room at a show in early 1973 were likely big fans of the headliner—Archie Bell and the Drells. Maybe they wanted to have the best view when the famed Texas soul band launched into “Tighten Up.” Less likely they were there for the opener—a band whose first album had been released the year before and who were now trying to operate as a trio after founding member Chris Bell had left.

Big Star could have sounded busted and tired—the failure of the album on a commercial level wasn’t so far behind them to view it with a rosy hue, and the idea of cult success was probably viewed as likely as time travel. This recording, cleaned up and as polished as possible, does offer a type of time travel: a window into one of the most acclaimed (and equal parts ignored) bands of the 1970s.

A few months later, the band would be performing much of the same set at the Rock Writers Convention, and if the band weren’t shifting any hard copies of the first album, at least they had the editorial ear of the boozing blurb writers of the time. Here, they had much of nothing, except for the songs. Which is why the band continues to move forward through history—why each corner of Big Star’s history seems to warrant deeper dives into the variety of roots which gave us “O My Soul,” “In the Street,” and “When My Baby’s Beside Me.” (Six-disc Chris Bell box? Check!)

Take a listen to how perfectly formed their songs were and how powerfully they are delivered here—with rarely a misstep—couple that with the vacuum of crowd silence in between songs (The Velvets’ Live at Max’s Kansas City is practically Cheap Trick’s At Budokan in comparison), and you have an archival set of the highest import. Alex Chilton’s fiery guitar heroics during “She’s a Mover,” the segue into “Back of a Car,” rough and loud and full of power—could you imagine having these songs nailed down and in the can and no one was listening? The mind boggles.

What these Archie Bell fans thought of during “Thirteen” and “The Ballad of El Goodo” we will never know, but they were probably pissed. How about those Flying Burrito Brothers, Kinks, Todd Rundgren, and T. Rex covers? More silence. Big Star would get more kudos a few months later at the famed Rock Writers gig, but the story of their three-album run still has the same sad ending. What they do here feels more remarkable: perform an incredible set, tight and dynamic—filled with quick changes and hooks, hooks, and hooks. But they do this in the face of indifference—the brilliance just bouncing off the walls—and you can hear it clearly, falling like that proverbial tree in the forest. 

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