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Milwaukee Musicians Honor Big Star

Dec. 26, 2013
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Big Star
Tribute shows are a dime a dozen on just about any concert calendar, but they usually don’t offer much in the way of variety, mostly sticking to big, marketable musical brands—your Elvises, Beatles and Pink Floyds. It’s not hard to see why that is. Ubiquitous bands have the broadest appeal and often the deepest back catalogues to draw material from, but it’s a welcome change of pace when a somewhat more obscure act gets similarly loving treatment, as with the upcoming Thank You Friends: A Tribute to the Music of Big Star, which brings together an impressive group of Milwaukee musicians to pay homage to the endlessly influential, Alex Chilton-led Memphis power-pop outfit.

While their notoriety has grown steadily since their incandescent three-year original run in the early 1970s, Big Star still rarely get the recognition they deserve considering their legacy, the dubious distinction of writing what became the “That ’70s Show” theme song aside.

“Every year Milwaukee has the Kneel to Neil and Nod to Bob, and I really can’t say enough good things about those events,” says organizer Sahan Jayasuriya. “Still, if you walk up to someone on the street, they’re going to know who Neil Young is and who Bob Dylan is, but there’s a much smaller chance they’ll know who Big Star is, yet they’re just as important. Musically, their influence is huge.”

Big Star’s proper studio albums, 1972’s #1 Record, 1974’s Radio City and the 1978 post-break up release Third/Sister Lovers, have become foundational texts to generations of alternative rockers, many of whom have covered the near-perfect American pop songs contained in those grooves, in turn bringing new, younger fans into the fold. “I came to Big Star, like a lot people, through other bands,” recollects Jayasuriya. “Their songs are always being covered. Evan Dando covered ‘The Ballad of El Goodo’ and Elliot Smith did a cover, and it got to a point where all these musicians I really like love Big Star, so when I actually got into the originals, they hit me pretty hard.”

From there, the idea of a tribute show seemed like a natural progression, and once he began asking around, Jayasuriya had no trouble finding local artists eager to show their admiration, resulting in a well-rounded lineup including Quinn Scharber, The Midwestern Charm, Ian Olvera, Arielle Smith, Chris DeMay, rising stars Midnight Reruns, Terry Hackbarth—whom Jayasuriya effusively praises as “probably the biggest power-pop fan in Milwaukee”—and rounded out by Sat. Nite Duets, who’s seemingly mismatched brand of puckishly surreal Day-Glo pop should make for some interesting interpretations. “Some people might be a little bit perplexed by them for a split second,” predicts Jayasuriya, “but then realize that it actually makes perfect sense.”

With so many local musicians involved and only three albums to go around, you’d think there’d be some competition for the would-be hits, but it’s a testament to the music, and to fans’ personal relationship with it, that the deep cuts proved just as sought after. “I lengthened it to include the period-appropriate Chris Bell and Alex Chilton solo material but, surprisingly, the initial requests I got from people wanting to do certain songs weren’t the ones you’d expect,” says Jayasuriya. “Nobody was diving to do ‘Thirteen’ or ‘Out in the Street,’ the most well-known ones, but that’s the thing about Big Star songs—they’re all really good.”

Thank You Friends: A Tribute to the Music of Big Star begins at 9 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 28, at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn at 1001 E. Locust St. Cover is $5.


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