Just as everyone at the SXSW Music Festival was finding their groove Wednesday, news of the death of Alex Chilton hit. “Austin’s in shock about Alex,” read one of the countless social media memes. On Saturday, heartsick Big Star fans got to hear Chilton songs performed by a cast of guest musicians sitting in on the regularly scheduled Big Star showcase, held down by the remaining members of the band’s current incarnation, Jon Auer, Ken Stringfellow and Jody Stephens.
But first a letter from Chilton’s widow, Laura, who the 59-year-old musician had only recently married, was read by publicist Heather West. The note highlighted some aspects of Chilton’s inner world: He was a person who did what he wanted; he was a preservationist; he was a good listener; he was compassionate, always willing to give change to a homeless person; his relationship with music was all about analysis, wherein he gave each separate element of a song its rightful due; and he was really proud of the Cramps records he produced. “He valued spontaneity,” the letter read, “and while that seemed to contradict his analytical nature, that was why he was a mystery.”
Quite obviously this was a celebration of a man’s character — unconventional, humane, inspirational — but the music had to go on. Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets lumbered through “In the Street,” otherwise known as the theme song for That 70’s Show. M. Ward of She & Him croaked an elegant “Big Black Car.” Mike Mills of R.E.M. found his religion with “Jesus Christ.” John Doe of X dispatched a crystal clear “I’m in Love with a Girl.” And in what was the night’s biggest surprise, Sondre Lerche provided an intense, harmonic “The Ballad of El Goodo.”
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And that’s how it went for the entire hour and a half, with guest musicians including Chris Stamey, Chuck Prophet, Evan Dando, Amy Speace, the Watson Twins, Susan Cowsill, and original Big Star member Andy Hummel (who came in from Lithuania for the show) all getting a chance to pay tribute to Chilton. A rendition of the classic “Thirteen” was one of the final songs of the night, the lyrics of which encapsulated not only the special moment that was taking place in the storied Antone’s blues club, but the entire SXSW Music Festival: “Rock & roll is here to stay/ Come inside where it’s okay.”
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