THE Crescent proved itself once again to be the venue to beat for live music in York. On a Tuesday too.
Those Pretty Wrongs are led by Jody Stephens, drummer, songwriter and singer in cult band Big Star, and Luther Russell. Russell is better known as a producer but is a serial collaborator and solo performer too.
To look the elephant in the room in the eye, this was not a Big Star tribute show. The two Big Star songs played, the timeless 13 and Way Out West, were by some distance the best of the evening. Those two encores were performed without mics, almost in the audience, surrounded by the love that people have for these songs.
The newer material can’t begin to match those that blew out of that combustible, short-lived collision of Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel, then given a lustrous shimmer by Ardent Studios’ John Fry.
With the benefit of time, the story of Big Star reads like an ironic screenplay. They made three unmistakable records that are synonymous with their Memphis hometown. Each is up there with anything from the 1960s and ’70s, before misfortune and mismanagement stopped them in their tracks and cult status slowly grew out from the ashes of all those might haves.
Chilton then beat a perverse, wilful path while Bell died broken in a car crash. The survivors at least received the late acclaim they deserved in the 1990s – one concertgoer was proudly wearing a T-shirt bought at their Leeds Duchess show in 1993.
Stephens, a youthful 71, has emerged from that tale intact and shows no signs of letting up. He is now the last surviving member of the original, classic line-up. More stories from that time would have been welcome, but Those Pretty Things aren’t really in the nostalgia market and make no qualms about playing their new album, Holiday Camp, in order and in full.
Performing as a duo rather than a four-piece, Stephens and Russell were in good spirits and voice. They were full of warm words for opening act Ned Roberts (incidentally once the lead conspirator at open-mic nights at the Waggon and Horses when he studied at the University of York).
Not coincidentally, Russell has produced each of Roberts’s four albums. Roberts’s set made a strong case for seeking out those records out – and his new album, due next year, in particular. His light, versatile voice recalled James Taylor, or Jeff Cowell’s buried treasure Lucky Strikes and Liquid Gold. Roberts’s set contained a well-rounded clutch of good songs, with Halfway To Reason and Song Of Spring making most impact.
Without a drum kit, out front and seated, Stephens’ hands couldn’t resist keeping time. As a front man, he has no problems keeping an audience’s attention. His evocative voice feels familiar from Big Star of course and has aged well.
Russell, the more outgoing of the two, knew when to step in with a quip or anecdote. Much more than a foil, his guitar playing and particularly his harmonies were wonderful. Not all of the original Those Pretty Wrongs songs were keepers but the strike rate was pretty high. Paper Cup and Scream were easily the equal of their recorded versions and it was good to hear their (seemingly) impromptu take on Lucky Guy in memory of John Fry.
After 75 minutes, Leicester then Memphis were calling, but it was good while it lasted.