Power-pop icon Alex Chilton died suddenly of a heart attack on Wednesday at age 59, but his influential ’70s band Big Star shone brightly nonetheless Saturday night at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin. A headlining concert originally scheduled as a reunion show instead became a star-studded tribute to the late songwriter/producer whose work with the Box Tops and Big Star inspired many indie artists, including R.E.M and the Replacements.
Anchored by longtime Big Star drummer Jody Stephens and the two Posies who had joined the latest configuration of Chilton’s band, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, the 90-minute show at Antone’s kept it light on the banter and heavy on the group’s catalog. That made for a couple of stirring moments, notably from guests John Doe and Sondre Lerche.
Stephens, who played alongside Chilton for four decades, admitted to being overwhelmed by the events of the past week. Heather West read an essay written by Chilton’s widow, Laura, describing him as a man “who befriended the underdogs. He saw beauty in what other people would dismiss … [He was] a good listener, and very compassionate, and had a low tolerance for vagueness and carelessness.”
Of the performances, Doe’s weathered vocals on “I’m in Love With a Girl” and Lerche’s childlike take on “The Ballad of El Goodo” rang especially true.
The Meat Puppets’ Curt Kirkwood stood in for a pair of songs, as didthe dB’s Chris Stamey, the latter on “I Am the Cosmos,” a song penned by original Big Star guitarist Chris Bell, who died in 1978.
Another original member, bassist Andy Hummel, performed on two tunes, including the closer “September Gurls,” which featured vocals by Susan Cowsill and the Watson Twins.
Mike Mills (R.E.M.), Chuck Prophet (Green on Red), and Austin singer-songwriter Amy Speace also took vocal turns.
But there were moments when it was apparent that the shock of Chilton’s death had not worn off on the participants.
Like when Evan Dando took the stage for a solo acoustic version of “Nighttime.” “Thanks,” Dando said bluntly. “Fuck.”
Setlist from the Big Star tribute:
Back of a Car
Don’t Lie to Me (featuring Curt Kirkwood)
In the Street (Kirkwood)
I Am the Cosmos (Chris Stamey)
When My Baby’s Beside Me (Stamey)
Big Black Car (M. Ward)
Way Out West (Andy Hummel)
Jesus Christ (Mike Mills)
I’m in Love With a Girl (John Doe)
Ballad of El Goodo (Sondre Lerche)
Thank You Friends (Chuck Prophet)
Nighttime (Evan Dando solo)
Try Again (Amy Speace, Dando)
September Gurls (Susan Cowsill, the Watson Twins, Hummel)