Musicians pay tribute to Alex Chilton at SXSW

Sun Mar 21, 2010 6:07pm EDT

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AUSTIN, Texas (Billboard) - Alex Chilton, who died of a heart attack Wednesday, three days before the scheduled performance of his band Big Star at the South By Southwest music conference, was memorialized at the Austin event by colleagues, friends and admirers, with words and, most important, with music.

After a warmly reverent and nostalgic afternoon panel at the Austin Convention Center -- with Big Star co-founders Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel, latter-day members Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, original producer John Frye and others -- Big Star's scheduled showcase that night at Antone's was turned into a kind of musical wake for Chilton, with numerous guests taking turns during the 80-minute show. But the performance was also preceded by more words.

Stephens told the packed house he was still "stunned and shocked" by Chilton's sudden death, at age 59, March 17 in New Orleans but thanked the fans for their support and noted that, in Austin, "it feels like the whole, broad music community has wrapped its arms around us."

Publicist Heather West then read the letter sent from Chilton's wife, Laura, in New Orleans, describing him as "an individual who did what he pleased ... (but) was also the most considerate and sincere person I've ever known." The letter noted Chilton's always broad musical interests and pride in his production work and said that "he valued spontaneity. This would seem to contradict his insistence on analysis and accuracy but somehow he managed to be both at the same time ... (which) is probably why he has been described as a genius and a musician's musician."

'THE BEST OPTION'

With Auer adding that "this is a horrible circumstance, but (playing) felt like the best option," the surviving Big Star trio kicked off the show with "Back of a Car" before welcoming the first guest, the Meat Puppets' Curt Kirkwood, to play guitar on "Don't Lie to Me" and sing on "In the Street." Chris Stamey played on the late Big Star co-founder Chris Bell's "I Am the Cosmos" and sang "When My Baby's Beside Me."

M. Ward offered a hushed take of "Big Black Car," and Hummel, who now resides in Lithuania, joined the group for the Stephens-sung "Way Out West." R.E.M.'s Mike Mills sang "Jesus Christ," and John Doe and Sondre Lerche performed particularly moving versions of "I'm in Love with a Girl" and "Ballad of El Goodo," respectively.

Chuck Prophet fronted Big Star for a powerful "Thank You Friends," and Evan Dando performed a solo acoustic "Night Time" and joined Amy Speace, Doe, Auer and Stringfellow on "Try Again." The night ended, appropriately, with a spirited "September Gurls" featuring Susan Cowsill, the Watson Twins, Hummel, Doe and Mills.

The remaining trio has made no decisions concerning Big Star's future, but Auer hinted at an impending end by telling the crowd that "it's been the pleasure of a lifetime playing with this man." Stephens, meanwhile, returned to the stage to once again thank the crowd "for helping us celebrate the life and music of Alex. I owe him a lot. I learned a lot from him. You've wrapped your arms around him, and we appreciate it."

Chilton was on the minds of other bands on Saturday's bill at Antone's, too. Ben Thornewill, singer and pianist for Philadelphia's Jukebox the Ghost, noted that "it's such a strange tone for the evening. I'm not sure what tone to strike," while New Yorkers the Postelles spoke about being "honored" to be part of the bill.

But rock veteran Dwight Twilley did find the tone. Telling the crowd shortly into his set that "normally at this time I say, 'Are y'all feeling good?' but this time there are probably some mixed feelings. So why don't we all just rock like hell!"

That's a sentiment Chilton probably would have appreciated.

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