TVD Live Shots: The 50th anniversary of Big Star’s #1 Record at Union Stage, 12/7

PHOTOS: RACHEL LANGE | DC’s Union Stage is an unassuming venue hidden in the maze of walkways that weave between buildings on the Wharf. Compared with the flashier Anthem, with its blazing marquee and baroque chandeliers, the vibe at Union is refreshingly chill. There’s no line at the door, security is a nice man in a beanie who casually checks IDs and handbags, and the lobby is sparsely occupied by people in Big Sar T-shirts pre-gaming with pints and pizza at tiny high-top tables. It has the homey, familiar feeling of a neighborhood bar where everyone’s a regular, even if they’re not.

Downstairs there’s more beer, more pizza, an unobtrusive merch table, and a few dozen people juggling cups and plates and comparing notes on what brought them here. Folks who don’t know each other slap backs and crack jokes like they do. For the most part they seem to fall into two categories: people old enough to be Big Star’s contemporaries (the majority) and people young enough to be partly responsible for the popular rediscovery of the band over the last three decades (a significant minority).

As the room fills it also shrinks, the crowd pushing up against a stage that seems to too small for the sheer number of instruments there. Besides a small army of guitars waiting in the nonexistent wings, there are at least six microphones, a keyboard, and, of course, the drum kit. It’s pleasantly cramped, and conspicuously Brechtian. Nothing is out of sight or out of mind, including the stage crew and guest performers who blithely come and go through the rear doors and curtain, or linger on the edges of the light to watch the action onstage or on the floor. It feels like a culty underground club show, which feels exactly right.

Despite the charmingly modest digs, Big Star’s #1 Record 50th anniversary tour is a star-studded affair. This iteration of the lineup includes—besides last surviving founding member Jody Stephens—Jon Auer of the Posies, Wilco’s Pat Sansone, Chris Stamey (whose musical endeavors and collaborators are too many to list), and R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, with Low Cut Connie’s Adam Weiner guesting on keys and vocals. The band plays through the entire album in their first set, before returning after a brief intermission for a more eclectic second set, which leans heavily on the late Chris Bell’s catalog. It’s one part tribute act, one part supergroup.

Nearly constant trading of places keeps the show fresh. There’s something for everyone, onstage and off: shredding, noodling, killer harmonies, and jam sessions just long enough to be delightful. The guitars dance more than duel. Each performer is a musical Swiss army knife, and they take turns on lead and rhythm and vocals and keys. Various members of the group step up to the microphone during these changeovers—which contribute to the metatheatrical effect, exchange of cords and clamps and pedals—to reflect on the material and how it came to be. There’s a witty self-awareness of the audience and the occasion, mostly in the mouth of Mike Mills, who reminds us that “greatness takes time” and suggests everyone use the lulls to “appreciate how lucky you are.” It’s a dexterous balance of sincerity and sarcasm.

There’s a kernel of truth in Mills’s wisecracks, of course. Everyone in the audience got lucky tonight and they seem to grok that. They sing along to every song and hang on every word of every anecdote about the band’s early days, relish the long intervals and the peeks behind the scenes. Applause is enthusiastic and effusive. When Jody Stephens leaves the shadows of the drum kit to take center stage for a couple of acoustic numbers (“Thirteen” stands out as particularly poignant, but “Way Out West” finds a few people brushing tears away, too) there’s a moment of reverence that feels almost religious. The evening, like all of Big Star’s endeavors, is unavoidably bittersweet. The impressive lineup reminds you who’s missing, but that, too, feels right. It’s a celebration of Big Star’s legacy—bitter and sweet and everything in between.

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