AUSTIN, Texas — The annual South by Southwest music festival is, by its nature, a joyous and triumphant experience. It’s the place where new bands are buzzed about, older acts make comebacks and where barbecue BBQ and beer are the common currency.
But, after two days, this year’s festival has proven to be one of sober reflection and remembrance, following the death of Memphis music legend and Box Tops/Big Star leader Alex Chilton on the event’s opening night Wednesday. Chilton’s passing — the result of an apparent heart attack in his adopted hometown of New Orleans — cast an undeniable pall over the festival, particularly for those representing Memphis’ musical contingent.
The news about Chilton was just another blow in what’s been a series of devastating Memphis music deaths that began with producer/pianist Jim Dickinson in August, continued with Hi Records chief Willie Mitchell in January, and which was followed by the shock overdose of 29-year-old Jay Lindsay, aka Jay Reatard, later that month.
Reatard was the subject of a daytime tribute show at Beerland on Thursday. A host of garage, punk and trash rock bands from across the country, like Alabama’s Wizard Sleeve and Nebraska’s Digital Leather, took the stage playing paying paid homage to Reatard’s vast catalog, from his work with groups like Bad Times and to the Lost Sounds as well as from his brief but meteoric solo career. A set from Memphis’ River City Tanlines, featuring Reatard’s longtime musical partner Alicja Trout, was provided the tribute’s most affecting moment.
Thursday’s night official South by Southwest festivities were highlighted by the Memphis Music Foundation’s second annual showcase at Barbarella. A solo set by singer-songwriter Harlan T. Bobo drew a surprisingly strong early evening crowd to the club, as Bobo played songs off his forthcoming Goner Records release Sucker.
Ardent label act Star & Micey followed, and Big Star’s Jody Stephens, still reeling from the previous day’s events, took the stage to introduce the band and publicly thank fans and the assembled industry members for the support and the outpouring of affection that greeted the news of Chilton’s death passing.
Star & Micey then proceeded to play a solid set of songs — that included a loving nod to Big Star’s “Thirteen” — that culminated with Stephens returning to the stage, to guest on the finale of “Nelson.”
Chilton’s death registered with others outside of Memphis, as famed singer-songwriter John Hiatt and Kinks frontman Ray Davies both remembered the late Memphian with dedications during their respective sets.
Tonight,sat Big Star will perform as scheduled and will go on with a panel discussion this afternoon, both effectively serving as memorials to Chilton.
If it seemed that the Memphis Music Foundation’s Barbarella showcase wasn’t as hyped as last year’s grand coming out party, the wildly diverse bill — which included roots songsmith Cory Branan, blues-rock outfit Hill Country Revue and a highly anticipated headlining turn by Bluff City rap legends 8Ball & MJG — certainly delivered on the much touted depth and diversity of Memphis music, and provided something of a silver lining to an otherwise cloudy couple of days.
— Bob Mehr, 529-2517