“Those he touched, he
touched immutably”: On Saturday, March 20 at Antone’s in Austin, the surviving Big Star members and a
host of musicians who loved and were influenced by Alex Chilton demonstrated
just how immutable that touch was. Among the guests: John Doe, Mike Mills,
Chris Stamey, Evan Dando, Kirk Kirkwood
and M. Ward.
By Rob Patterson / Photos by Randy Harward
It may seem contradictory for any number of reasons that the
SXSW closing night tribute to Alex Chilton was both bittersweet and
celebratory. Yet that fits what the music he made with Big Star was all about:
reveling in the propulsive chime and harmonic pleasures of pure pop while
singing about the double-edged sword of young love.
Earlier in the day at the Chilton panel, Ardent Studios
owner John Fry mentioned (via webcam feed from Memphis) “Alex’s reputation for being a curmudgeon.”
But it seems to this writer – who knew Chilton in his late 1970s New York City
days – that such a rep was only the result of his being an idealist who had
learned to live (very much in his own way) as a realist. As Big Star drummer
Jody Stephens reported in a note from Paul Westerberg, “Alex was Alex all of
his life.” Chris Stamey of The dB’s, who played bass in Chilton’s first NYC
band, echoed that by noting, “He didn’t lie,” though panelists did also discuss
how he could often be circumspect and even quite cryptic.
“He let you figure him out,” concluded Posies/latter day Big
Star bassist Ken Stringfellow. But the appeal and almost incalculable influence
of Chilton’s Big Star legacy needed no figuring out as a number of his notable
musical followers and admirers made clear in the 18-song salute to follow that
night at Antone’s. Performing numbers from the three 1970s Big Star albums,
they all wonderfully locked into the openhearted emotionality of his lyrics and
the eternal melodic pleasures of Big Star’s rocked-up pop sound.
MVP honors were handily earned by the Big Star v.2 survivors
Stringfellow, Stephens and guitarist Jon Auer (pictured above), who backed the
guests and began the show with a faithful take on “Back of a Car” that channeled
Chilton so effectively it was almost a bit hard to believe he wasn’t there –
but for the mike stand at center stage where he should have been. That rich
evocation of the Big Star vibe continued as Meat Puppet Curt Kirkwood joined
them on guitar for “Don’t Lie To Me” and “In The Street” followed by Stamey on
Chris Bell’s “I Am The Cosmos” and “When My Baby’s Beside Me.” In those moments
one certainly felt the “invisible man who can sing in a visible voice,” as
Westerberg termed Chilton in his Replacements song about him.
The entire set was a marvel, and surprisingly free of any
notable bum notes or glitches, given how quickly it had to be assembled. Every
number and singer was like yet another high
point, though a few marvelous stunners stood out.
John Doe wrenched the deepest feelings of youthful
amorousness and longing within “I’m in Love With a Girl,” and was then followed
by Norwegian popster Sondre Lerche for the night’s most reinterpreted number, “The
Ballad of El Goodo,” within which his impassioned singing opened up delightful
new facets. A midpoint reading of “Thirteen” with Auer singing lead provided a
touching moment of repose and reflection on Chilton’s crystallization of the
very essence of being a teen. And with just his voice and an acoustic guitar on
“Nighttime,” Evan Dando nonetheless wowed the assembled with the impassioned
tremors of his delivery.
Original Big Star bassist Andy Hummel jumped up to harmonize
as Stephens sang “Way Out West,” and such others as M. Ward (doing a somber
“Big Black Car”), R.E.M.’s Mike Mills (“Jesus Christ”) and Chuck Prophet (who
rocked “Thank You Friends” out of the park) underlined how vital the band’s
inspiration was to them and so many others. The show closed with harmonic bliss
as Dando, Auer, Stringfellow and Amy Speace delivered “Try Again,” and then
Susan Cowsill, The Watson Twins, Hummel and Mills with the Big Star players
roused “September Gurls” into a perfect grace note of celebration.
At the daytime panel a letter from Chilton’s Memphis scene compatriot
Tav Falco was read where he noted of Alex, “Those he touched, he touched
immutably.” Everyone on stage that night showed just how eternally he affected
them, and what they sang and played surely had its immutable impact on everyone
listening. The musicians came not to bury Chilton and not merely to praise him
either, but rather show just how life-enriching the music he created with Big
Star was to them, and then prove that with spirit and love to all the souls in
the room. Even without Chilton’s human presence now on Earth, his music will no
doubt resonate eternally.