AUSTIN, Texas — In death, as in life, Alex Chilton remained the focus of attention, intrigue and homage. The final day of the South by Southwest music festival clearly seemed to revolve around the Memphis music legend, who died Wednesday in his adopted hometown of New Orleans from a presumed heart attack.
The annual music industry event had been rocked by news of Chilton passing on its opening night, and tributes had poured in over the course of the next two days — it seemed there was hardly a set or performance that didn’t pay tribute in word or song.
Saturday’s events began with a panel at the Austin Convention Center — which I had been asked to moderate — titled “I Never Travel Far Without a Little Big Star.” Originally intended to celebrate the group’s musical influence, Chilton’s death meant that the program would serve to illuminate an even larger legacy.
Emotions were still raw and hearts heavy among the panelists, which included Big Star founders Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel, latter-day band members Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, Ardent Studio head John Fry, Chilton collaborator Chris Stamey and power-pop favorite Tommy Keene.
The assembled group began by examining Chilton’s Memphis upbringing in a household that prized art and music. Delving into his career with '60s pop hitmakers The Box Tops (including a run-in with Charles Manson along the way), his brief but influential run with Big Star, and his wonderfully idiosyncratic solo career, the panelists provided both insightful observations and humorous anecdotes.
Stamey, in particular, regaled the audiences with several hilarious stories that summed up Chilton’s blunt manner and razor-sharp wit. Stamey recalled one particular episode during Chilton’s days working as a dishwasher in New Orleans when he had been spouting off his theories on the world to a co-worker, who replied: “Yeah, Alex. You’re right and the whole world is wrong.” “You know, Chris,” Chilton recalled. “I really think he was onto something.”
In the evening, the scene shifted to Antone's for the scheduled Big Star concert — recast as a last-minute all-star Chilton tribute — which proved to be the most-buzzed-about show of the festival’s final night, with a long line snaking around the venue most of the evening.
Before the music began, Stephens got up to the mic and spoke haltingly to the crowd to express his appreciation for the outpouring of support and sympathy over the past few days. Heather West, a longtime friend and music industry figure, then read a message from Chilton’s widow, Laura. A deeply personal and touching essay that sought to explain her often-misunderstood husband, it spoke of Chilton’s generosity and curiosity and his love of music — a list that ranged from George Frideric Handel to Brian Wilson — as a hushed crowd audience listened intently.
By the time the music finally began with the strains of Big Star’s “Back of a Car,” there was a palpable sense of relief. The 90-minute concert provided some much-needed catharsis, a release of all the pent-up grief and shock that had lingered in the air since Wednesday.
Despite having had only a couple of days to prepare, the band pulled together a remarkable tribute with more than a dozen guests essaying the Big Star catalog.
Highlights were plentiful: the Meat Puppets’ Curt Kirkwood jumped on stage for snarling takes on “Don’t Lie to Me” and “In the Street”; X’s John Doe offered a surprisingly delicate reading of “I’m In Love With a Girl”; Norwegian singer-songwriter Sondre Lerche navigated the anthemic “The Ballad of El Goodo”; R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills brought his high harmonies to “Jesus Christ;” and Chuck Prophet drove an epic version of “Thank You Friends.”
But it was those with the closest and longest ties to Chilton whose performances were most deeply felt. Original Big Star bassist Andy Hummel strapped on a guitar, joining Stephens onstage for the first time in 36 years for a couple of songs, including “Way Out West.” Chris Stamey, clearly crushed by the passing of his mentor, paid homage to Chilton and to long-deceased Big Star founder Chris Bell with a brilliant solo on “I Am the Cosmos” and later lifted spirits with a joyous rendition of “When My Baby’s Beside Me.”
After a set-capping finale of “September Gurls,” the stage cleared before Stephens ambled back to the mic to thank the crowd again. He struggled for a moment, grasping to find to words that would serve as a fitting coda to such an emotional week. He needn’t have worried; the music had already done its job.