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SXSW 2010 ends with a lot of love for Alex Chilton

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For many who attended South by Southwest 2010, the final day of the conference was all about power-pop great Alex Chilton, who died at age 59 on Wednesday.

It only made sense: As has often been said of the Velvet Underground, Chilton's beloved band Big Star never sold a lot of records, but it often seems as if everyone who bought one started a band--or became a rock critic. And the largest gathering anywhere in the world of people who loved his music took place over the last five days in Austin.

The celebration of Chilton's life and legacy began during the day at the convention center with a panel entitled "I Never Travel Far Without a Little Big Star," moderated by music journalist Bob Mehr, the former Chicago Reader rock critic now at the Memphis Commercial Appeal who broke the news of the musician's death, and who wrote the liner notes to last year's Big Star box set, "Keep an Eye on the Sky."

Mehr started by noting that a very different sort of discussion had been planned, and the initial impulse was to cancel the talk and Saturday night's showcase gig by the reunited Big Star after Chilton's death. Instead, both became a sort of Irish wake.

The surviving members of the original Big Star, drummer Jody Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel (the other key member, Chris Bell, died in 1978) were joined by Ardent Records founder John Fry via Skype from Memphis in recounting Chilton's uniquely musical and bohemian upbringing, and the optimistic early days of Big Star, which Chilton joined after already having had one career as a teen star in the chart-topping Box Tops.

Other participants on the panel--power-pop disciples Tommy Keene and Chris Stamey and Posies bandmates Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, who backed Chilton and Stephens in Big Star Mach II for the last 18 years--contributed anecdotes and insights stemming from their love of Chilton's singing, songwriting and virtuosic guitar playing, as well as diplomatically worded glimpses of his personality, which could rank second only to Lou Reed's in terms of cutting wit, brutal honesty and overall surliness.

Stephens recounted a meeting between Chilton and Charles Manson at Beach Boy Dennis Wilson's house and noted, "Manson had met his match." And Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, who had been invited to come to Austin for Saturday night's musical tribute but could not attend, passed along to the panel that, whatever one thought of his personality, it was consistent: "Alex was Alex all of his life."

Much later in the day--or actually early Sunday morning--the planned Big Star showcase at Austin's storied club Antone's turned into an all-star tribute that began after a few heartfelt words from the always humble and classy Stephens, and the reading of an eloquent tribute written by Chilton's wife Laura. (The two married last August.)

Then the man was celebrated in the most fitting way possible: through his music.

With Stringfellow and Auer leading the way, delivering gorgeous harmony vocals and intricate guitar and bass lines, and Stephens mixing the frenetic chaos of Keith Moon with the spot-on devotion to the groove so common in Memphis soul, a procession of guest musicians helped underscore both the timeless beauty of Chilton's best songs and the wide-ranging influence his music had across different genres and generations.

Relentlessly melodic and at times transcendent, there could have been no better way to bid Alex Chilton farewell (though Paul Westerberg of the Replacements certainly did a fine job with the op ed he wrote for the New York Times on Saturday).

Here is the set list and the roster of guests at Antone's:

1. "Back of a Car"

2. "Don't Lie to Me" (with Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets)

3. "In the Street" (with Kirkwood)

4. "I am the Cosmos" (Chris Bell song, with Chris Stamey of the dB's)

5. "When My Baby's Beside Me" (with Stamey)

6. "Big Black Car" (with M. Ward)

7. "Way Out West" (with Andy Hummel)

8. "Daisy Glaze"

9."Jesus Christ" (with Mike Mills of R.E.M.)

10. "For You"

11. "I'm in Love with a Girl" (with John Doe of X)

12. "The Ballad of El Goodo" (with a stunningly brilliant vocal by Sondre Lerche)

13. "Thirteen"

14. "Feel"

15. "Thank You Friends" (with Chuck Prophet)

16. "Nighttime" (with Evan Dando)

17. "Try Again" (with Dando and Amy Speace)

18. "September Gurls" (with the Watson Twins, Susan Cowsill, Mills and Hummel)

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Thanks for a great tribute, Jim, from the thoughtful analysis to the complete set list.

For me, Alex was always a difficult, essential hero. I know he thought having heroes was a bad idea, and I know he had mixed and complicated feelings about Big Star. But he was a hero for me, and Big Star changed my life. I'm grateful I got to see him perform ten times in the 80's, and on a couple of occasions got to chat with him. When he was in a good mood, he brought the most extraordinary clarity, intelligence, and warmth into the room. Folks talk about charisma as if it's a kind of glamour or star power. Charisma is really about the strength and brilliance of life within a person. And at his best, Alex's charisma could take your breath away.

I've got so many great memories of hearing him play, but two stand out. One is when I heard him play Mingus's "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" with his "High Priest" band. It was so intense and soulful I felt the tears running down my face. Afterwards I thanked Alex for it, and he seemed deeply pleased. The other is the night he started up the second half of his set in a small bar in Charlottesville, Virginia. The first half had been a typical "Feudalist Tarts"-era show: mostly great, and sometimes ramshackle. To start the second half, he played "You Get What You Deserve," and it was transcendent. Everything locked perfectly into place. And his vocals had all the yearning, melodic sweetness it had back on "Radio City." I'm glad I was there for that moment. Alex didn't make a routine out of such gestures, which made it all the more special.

I still can't believe he's gone.

It's good to see you give some props to Sondre Lerche. He played a stunningly brilliant show a few weeks ago at Lincoln Hall. He's certainly a talented and gifted performer and hopefully one we will see come through town many more times...

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This page contains a single entry by Jim DeRogatis published on March 21, 2010 3:18 AM.

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