Just when one thinks the Big Star well has run dry, Omnivore Recordings surprises with a treat of the magnitude of Live in Memphis (OVCD-107). On October 29, 1994 at Memphis’ New Daisy Theatre, Big Star founding members Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens, were joined by Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies for an overflowing set of Big Star classics and covers in front of an appreciative hometown audience. The debut of this band lineup on April 25, 1993 was preserved on the Zoo Records album Columbia: Live at Missouri University 4/25/93; the concert of October 29, 1994 was billed as Big Star’s farewell U.S. performance. It turned out to be anything but – the band continued to tour together for another 16 years until Chilton’s untimely death in 2010. Listening to the 20 previously unreleased tracks on the Live in Memphis CD, it’s easy to see why Chilton and Stephens resolved to keep going with their younger bandmates. (The concert is also available on DVD.)
This set of rocking guitar-driven pop – which features 14 songs also preserved on the Missouri album plus six more – is altogether a more confident, more swaggering and more rousing evening. Not only was the band tighter and more attuned to each other, but in Memphis, there was added frisson from all of the family and friends present; Jon Auer writes in the liner notes here about the thrill of singing Chris Bell’s “I Am the Cosmos” in front of the late Big Star founder’s family. With confident riffs and hooks abounding, this doesn’t sound like the set of a cult band, but rather like the set of established pros singing beloved songs to a packed house. In addition to established Big Star classics like “The Ballad of El Goodo,” “In the Street,” “When My Baby’s Beside Me” and “September Gurls” – songs in which it’s nearly impossible to resist the urge to sing along – there are some surprises. Marc Bolan’s “Baby Strange” and Todd Rundgren’s “Slut” are reprised from the Missouri set, but there are also covers of The Boss (“Fire” – albeit around 30 seconds’ worth of it) and the bossa nova (a loose, tossed-off “The Girl from Ipanema”) plus the late sixties-vintage “Patty Girl” from singer-songwriter Dick Campbell as recorded by Gary and the Hornets.
After the jump: more on Big Star, plus Roger Taylor's Best!
Housed in a digipak, Live in Memphis includes liner note remembrances from filmmaker Danny Graflund (who recorded this show), Ardent Studios’ producer John Fry, Jody Stephens, Jon Auer, and Ken Stringfellow. The soundboard-derived audio as mastered in Memphis at Ardent and L. Nix Mastering, is solid throughout; listeners shouldn’t be concerned by the opening “In the Street,” which was taken from an inferior source (camera microphones only) but happily retained for its significance to the concert. Big Star’s last pre-encore song here is “Thank You, Friends” – an appropriate exclamation to the folks at Omnivore Recordings for keeping the legacy of Big Star – not to mention The Posies – going strong.
Over the past five (!) decades, the drumming of Roger Taylor has kept the fantastical, flamboyant and theatrical music delivered by Queen rooted in rock. But as familiar a face as he is behind Queen’s drum kit, Taylor has remained largely under-the-radar as a solo artist despite five releases in his own name. Omnivore has recently reissued the entire Taylor solo canon in an impressive box set entitled The The Lot, but for those wishing to dip their toes in the water first, there’s also Roger Taylor: Best (OVCD-105).
This 18-track anthology draws from those five releases and spans the period from his first single, “I Wanna Testify” (recorded during the sessions for Queen’s sixth studio album, 1977’s News of the World), through his most recent offering, 2013’s Fun on Earth. In between, the anthology samples tracks from U.K. Top 20 release Fun in Space (1981), Strange Frontier (1984), Happiness? (1994), and Electric Fire (1998).
Though Fun in Space wouldn’t have been unrecognizable to those familiar with Taylor’s songwriting contributions to Queen, the overall vibe was less theatrical and more purely rock-and-roll – in all its forms. The four selections from that LP kick off Best on a high note, from the Police-meets-Steely Dan-style “Future Management (You Don’t Need Nobody Else)” to the amped-up adaptation of The Parliaments’ funky “I Wanna Testify” and the chunky rockabilly rhythm of “Let’s Get Crazy.” Taylor sang (in his gravelly but effective voice) and played all instruments on Fun in Space but welcomed guests including his Queen bandmates on its 1984 follow-up Strange Frontier. The prevailing electronic production style of the 1980s is more in evidence on the tracks from Frontier, including the catchy, driving “Man on Fire” with Brian May’s rhythm guitar and the sleek ballad “Beautiful Dreams.” (The Springsteen-influenced album also features covers from The Boss and Bob Dylan, but those tracks haven’t made the cut here.)
After a long hiatus from solo recording, Taylor returned with 1994’s politically-charged Happiness?, from which four tracks here are derived including the banned-by-the-BBC “Nazis 1994” and the gentler and still relevant plea for unity “Foreign Sand.” A full five songs are reprised from 1998’s Electric Fire, which further contemporized Taylor’s sound without sacrificing the heart that beats so strongly in his music, not to mention his social consciousness. “Surrender” tackles marriage and domestic abuse in an anthemic rock framework; Taylor’s vocal timbre even recalls Rod Stewart on the searching “Where Are You Now?” Best concludes its trip through the Taylor oeuvre with the biting, topical 2009 single “The Unblinking Eye (Everything is Broken)” and one cut from the 2013 album Fun on Earth, the soaring “Sunny Day.”
As Taylor was responsible for such Queen favorites as “Radio Ga Ga” and “These are the Days of Our Lives,” it should be no surprise that he’s a formidable songwriting talent. Best makes a strong case for a solid solo career, which strips down the Queen sound but has many of the same touchstones. It plays like a personal journey for Taylor, who co-produced the compilation with Omnivore’s Cheryl Pawelski, and can be viewed as a fine complement to the catalogue of the band in whose shadow these songs linger. Gavin Lurssen and Reuben Cohen have splendidly remastered all tracks. Freed from the need to include hit singles, the subjectively-selected Best makes for a compelling listen. It’s handsomely designed by Greg Allen in a digipak and includes a brief booklet. Unfortunately, liner notes are limited to a brief note from the artist, and there are no musician credits. But there’s a good chance that Queen fans will go Ga Ga over this alternative look at the band’s venerable drummer.