Big Star • Live on WLIR [CD, LP]

Last time I reviewed something BIG STAR related here, I mentioned that Omnivore Recordings had seemed to have excavated about all there was left to find of the Memphis power pop band’s recorded legacy. (My review of Chris Bell’s I Am the Cosmos is here.) So far, I haven’t been proved wrong. This “new” release, Live on WLIR, is neither new nor all that necessary – especially if you already own 1992’s Live. That Rykodisc release was the first official issue of a 1973 concert recorded for Long Island, NY radio station WLIR, and though of interest to hardcore Big Star fans, was certainly a lesser part of the group’s canon. This release is a pretty straightforward reissue of that concert. Whether you ought to invest in this version largely depends on three things: 1) How big a fan you are, 2) If you already have that now out-of-print CD, and 3) If you’ve just gotta own that concert on vinyl.

The 14 songs on Live on WLIR (the fifteenth track is an interview with guitarist Alex Chilton) appear to be a pretty representative sample of Big Star’s ’73 set. At this point, after the release of the band’s sophomore, trio-recorded Radio City, the band consisted of Chilton, drummer Jody Stephens and new recruit, bassist John Lightman (who had just replaced the recently departed Andy Hummel). You hear the threesome play songs from both Radio City and #1 Record, and though there’s a pretty rockin’ vibe throughout, the pared down band doesn’t quite pull things off the way the original four-piece with Chris Bell did, let alone the studio arrangements of the Bell-less band. What you do get is a real good idea of Chilton’s guitar playing ability, which is greater than you might expect. His distillation of multiple guitar parts into one, live part is quite remarkable. And that’s why I’m remarking on it right now! Had I the opportunity to review Live when it came out in ’92 I’m not sure I would have picked up on it. But after being submerged in Big Star-mania for a few decades, it’s certainly noticeable to me now.

Live on WLIR’s new artwork is nice but not exactly a game changer. The liner notes here are by the same guy who wrote them back then (Robert Gordon; they’re new notes, though, and augmented by a short interview with bassist Lightman). And the mastering? Again, new but not revelatory; I listened to both versions and there are only minor differences. The ’92 Live, by Dr. Toby Mountain, isn’t as in-your-face, true, but it also doesn’t “feature” the slightly out-of-tune and overly saturated guitar that this year’s Live on WLIR by Michael Graves does. Since a multitrack recording of this concert clearly doesn’t exist, all of the audio quality decisions lie in the mastering. I prefer Mountain’s job on Live myself. But that version of the concert hasn’t been available for some time (and was never issued on vinyl), so this likely may be the only one you come across. I don’t know that having this set on vinyl is all that important, as I can’t imagine something that was recorded live to analog, preserved to digital, and then returned to analog is going to be any better on vinyl than it would be on CD. So, since this isn’t a crucial Big Star release, I’d probably opt for (in this order): 1) The original compact disc on Rykodisc, followed by 2) This Omnivore CD, and finally 3) The 2LP vinyl set, which might just be more appealing to you if you’re absolutely adamant about analog.

2.5/5 (Omnivore OV-321, 2019)

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