Writer Eric Weisbard wrote on Thursday, “I read my Facebook and Alex Chilton is Michael Jackson. I leave Facebook and he doesn’t exist.” Fortunately, SXSWville (located in Austin) has been the physical equivalent of Weisbard’s Facebook page, and for artists, writers and fans of a certain age, Chilton’s passing has been Topic A. While most tributes have been understandably reverential, they were rarely too reverential. Jon Dee Graham remembered a Chilton show that ended up with his band members getting into a fight and leaving the stage before the show started, so Chilton sat down onstage and played a heartbreaking version of “I Only Have Eyes for You” five times in a row before asking who pays him and walking off. Graham said, “This is for the Angry Alex” and rolled into a furious, storming cover of “Don’t Lie to Me.” At a backyard party at the Yard Dog, Chuck Prophet revisited the more lascivious Alex by covering two tracks from Chilton’s solo career – “Hey Little Child” and “Bangkok.”
The wind chill had dropped below freezing when the official tribute to Chilton/Big Star show started at Antone’s, but there was still a line around the building hoping to get in. Drummer Jody Stephens spoke briefly and introduced publicist Heather West, who read a statement by Chilton’s widow Laura that spoke of his generosity, his championing of underdogs, his love of precision and his belief in spontenaiety – and that she wasn’t sure how those latter two fit together either.
The show featured Stephens, Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer – the modern Big Star lineup – on their own and backing guest vocalists, joined at times by original Big Star member Andy Hummel, who was flown in for the occasion. With that lineup and a host of singers who were influenced by those songs, the versions were beautiful and lovingly faithful. It was also obvious that the night was emotionally complex for the band, and you had to feel for them.
In truth, it was a Big-Star-with-Guests show more than tribute to Chilton (Chris Stamey sang Big Star member Chris Bell’s solo single “I am the Cosmos”). It didn’t allow much interpretive leeway for the singers, though John Doe did manage to countrify “I’m in Love with a Girl.” Sondre Lerche’s more personal treatment of the melody of “The Ballad of El Goodo” made it one of the highlights, and almost anything from Sister Lovers came to life in a way that some of the better-known songs didn’t. M. Ward’s “Big Black Car” made the song’s loneliness palpable in a room with a few thousand people, and Evan Dando’s solo version of “Nighttime” underscored what a remarkable pop melodicist Chilton could be.
The show ended on a high note with Susan Cowsill and the Watson Twins singing “September Gurls.” In my circle of friends in college, “September Gurls” was the great pop hit that never made the radio, and it struck the right combination of reverence and invention. We’ve heard it sung by women when the Bangles first covered it, but it still made the song fresh for the night, particularly with three singers as idiosyncratic as Cowsill and the Watsons. It was a version that loved Chilton and pop music without loving either too much, and it left everyone with a song to sing as they headed out into the night.