Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Big Star 'Third' at the Barbican + Ray Davies

Bought tickets for this a while ago because we fancied that Mr Ray Davies might grace it and us with his presence. Time went by; names were finalised and Ray wasn’t mentioned. Now I wasn't a huge Big Star fan. I was only aware of ‘Thirteen’, for instance, because Daryll Ann had covered it, and of ‘September Gurls’ via someone my Dad worked with. On recommendation, I listened to a few more tracks on the ubiquitous YouTube and enjoyed them, particularly the ballads, many suffused with a melodic melancholy worthy of the Kinks themselves, a simple eloquence in arrangement and lyric, such as ‘The EMI Song’.  However, I tried to get into Third without much success. Loved ‘Holocaust’, liked ‘Blue Moon’, ‘O Dana’ and ‘Nighttime’, didn’t mind ‘Take Care’ and ‘Jesus Christ’ and, apart from the covers, wasn’t particularly enthused by any of the other tracks. I know this must rankle with longtime aficionados so I apologise. I thought the songs were possibly too slight, too fragile to sustain the weight of an orchestral interpretation, that they would be like sandcastles overwhelmed by the tide or rowboats overcome by the vast power of the ocean. I was wrong.

So we’re sitting in the food hall eating overpriced cakes and sandwiches when Robyn Hitchcock comes in, instantly recognisable by the white hair and colourful shirt. Nice to see they make him buy his own dinner. Naturally don’t bother to speak to him although ‘Heaven’ is one of my favourite songs (hence this gratuitous link) and I would have loved to ask if Ray has been around backstage at all. Then – they have these long tables like a school dining hall – we were descended on by the musicians who would later be playing – so do we acknowledge that we know who they are? Of course not. We pointedly ignore them.

Wander out into the open to avoid being stalked by these annoying famous people and to get away from a curious squat doppelganger gazing at me from the mirror in the Ladies. Am accosted by someone from the Jackie Leven list, also here for Big Star. We join him and his friend for a while before the show begins. Neither has heard anything about Ray coming along and they seem to think it unlikely. Our hopes fade but Ray had hinted that he would be here on Facebook. However, can't see him having the time or inclination to learn any Big Star songs and they wouldn’t suit him anyway so if he sings, it’ll have to be ‘Till the End of the Day’, the song on See My Friends that he and Alex collaborated on – I certainly won't complain as it’s one of my favourites, – I particularly like this version at the beginning of this 1972 concert; Ray is so masterful and yet so camp (complete with breathless pant between words and then a curtsy), holding the audience in the palm of his hand as he promises, rescinds, delivers – it’s brilliant. As for the end of the song – the hair, the screams, Kurt Cobain anyone? Forget what I said in an earlier blog about Ray being a pussycat; by 72, he's found his roar.

I must admit that I hate the idea of See My Friends though. Why would I want to hear anyone other than Dave sing with Ray? Paloma Faith’s version of ‘Lola’ is horrid, no inflection in her tone; Metallica turn the emotion in ‘You Really Got Me’ into rage, reducing it to something far inferior; Mumford and Sons don’t destroy ‘Days’ and ‘This Time Tomorrow’ but neither do they add anything in particular; to me, it’s as if all the songs are being stripped of what made them special. Anyway, I'll hold my tongue for the moment.

The concert starts and is actually pretty good fun. There’s an obvious camaraderie between the musicians and everyone is very appreciative of each other and of the audience although the second track, ‘Kizza Me’ is so raucous, it nearly frightens us away.

The hall is a manageable size and even in Row P, we’re not too far from the action, the only problem being that the conductor blocks the vocalists.

The first half stand-outs are: Mike Mills, ‘Jesus Christ’; Ira Kaplan, ‘O Dana’; Sondre Lerche, ‘Femme Fatale’; Jody Stephens, ‘Blue Moon’; Django Haskins, ‘Holocaust’ (chilling and affecting; you can hear ice in the instrumentation, the little boat must have reached the Arctic); everything the Posies guys do, always had a soft spot for them since they sent me a copy of the lyrics of ‘Grant Hart’ so that I could show them to Grant – he was duly pleased.

There’s an ebb and flow throughout, with each artist bringing something different to the mix.

First half setlist
Nature Boy – John Bramwell
Kizza Me – Mitch Easter
O Dana – Ira Kaplan
For You – Jody Stephens
Nighttime – Alexis Taylor
Jesus Christ – Mike Mills
Big Black Car – Jon Auer
Take Care – Ira Kaplan
Stroke It, Noel – Norman Blake
Femme Fatale – Sondre Lerche
Downs – Robyn Hitchcock
Dream Lover – Sharon Van Etten
Blue Moon – Jody Stephens
Holocaust – Django Haskins
You Can’t Have Me – Sharon Van Etten
Kanga Roo – Brett Harris
Thank You, Friends – Various

The names are simply who sings the lead. My typing’s too slow for me to list all the musicians.

I enjoy the second half better though. This is like a mini Big Star hit parade so we get ‘Thirteen’ – I think I would have felt cheated if they hadn’t played this. Great vocals from Skylar Gudasz. Mike Mills rocks out a rendition of ‘September Gurls’; his voice is perfect for it. Shamefully, many of the songs are new to me

Second half setlist
I’m in Love with a Girl
Give Me Another Chance
I Am the Cosmos
There Was a Light
You and Your Sister
Daisy Glaze
The EMI Song
The Ballad of El Goodo
September Gurls

Apologies if I got any of these titles wrong. Couldn’t take down names of who sung which in the dark. Will accept corrections/additions.

And just when you think that Ray’s cried off, they talk about Big Star rarely doing covers and you know it’s his cue. He’s a miniature tsunami, raising the energy level a notch and sweeping us along with him, upturning the boat. He gets the biggest applause of the night and effortlessly steals the show, smart in a jacket and shirt although his hair looks like he’s been pulled through a hedge backwards. Talks briefly but sincerely about his acquaintance with Alex Chilton and appears eminently affable. People stand for the first time although only we remain on our feet to dance. I thought this picture was particularly topical as we’re about to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee and host the Olympics. Not sure why Gary Barlow (apposite initials) was chosen to organise the concert and not Ray, 'jubilant' as I was when Take That went to number one after having had more than a little 'Patience'. Somehow this return to triumph gave us all a sense of vindication on their behalf after their years languishing in the chip shop wilderness (some selling, some buying) watching Robbie's career perpetually in the ascendant. Did they ever dare think 'Our day will come'? Anyway, there was some validation for the Kinks as one of their songs was mentioned in the Archbishop of Canterbury's address, proof of entry to the pantheon.

With Ray Davies:

Showstoppers both.

I don't know how Ray fits so much into his schedule (he really is a workaholic) but I like the fact that he finds time for this. It doesn’t really matter why he chooses to take part, whether to reinforce the respect (and adulation) of his peers, out of a general need for recognition and admiration, out of respect for Alex Chilton and Big Star, out of pure altruism, out of a desire to be perceived as purely altruistic, the all-round good guy next-door. It’s the ‘taking part’ that counts although of course Ray also wins in this instance, always important for him.

Back of a Car

All in all, a great spirit of togetherness and celebration among the musicians and a heartfelt appreciation of Big Star’s oeuvre, conveyed to the crowd on waves of their own enthusiasm and love, inspiring those of us relatively unfamiliar with the songs to investigate further.

Next stop: Bob Mould, Come Dancing, Citizen Cope.


  1. Very entertaining Blog review, Lady Sshh: You made me feel as if I were *there*! Cheers! Yer Pally in Cally, M

  2. Thank you, marvellous one.