The Raconteurs’ Brendan Benson and R.E.M.’s Mike Mills joined the surviving members of power-pop pioneers Big Star to pay tribute to the late Alex Chilton Saturday at Memphis’ Levitt Shell, a cool old outdoor amphitheatre in Overton Park. Singer-guitarist Chilton closed the first chapter in the Big Star saga at the same locale back in 1974. Re-forming in the Nineties, with Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens joined by Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies, Big Star last played together in November in Brooklyn. Chilton died of a heart attack on March 17th, shortly before a scheduled performance at South by Southwest that became a powerful celebration of his music after news of his untimely passing spread in Austin.
Following a photo montage of Chilton and Chris Bell (the first Big Star casualty), the trio of Stephens, Auer and Stringfellow broke into the alternately dreamy and rocking “Back of a Car,” from the classic Radio City. The first guest, John Davis of Superdrag, spearheaded fresh, spunky versions of “In the Street” (adopted as the theme song for That ’70s Show), the unison shout-fest “Don’t Lie to Me” and the driving, feel-good anthem “When My Baby’s Beside Me.” The affable Mills sang “Jesus Christ” and “Thank You Friends,” and added pithy guitar solos to the campy, party-up finale, “A Whole New Thing.” Benson contributed spirited versions of “O My Sou” and “September Gurls,” and the punchy blend of his and Auer’s guitars was a highlight. Poignantly, Auer strummed Bell’s vintage red Gibson 335 on “I Am the Cosmos.”
Even with their main man gone, Big Star sounded strong, with Auer ably synthesizing his and Chilton’s guitar parts and Stephens providing musical, muscular drumming. There were more cameo appearances, ranging from local singers to Norway’s Sondre Lerche. They were all capable and well-intentioned, but another recognizable name or two — say, former Replacement Paul Westerberg (who wrote “Alex Chilton,” the ultimate homage) or one of the Bangles (who covered “September Gurls”) — would have made the program feel more eventful. Original bassist Andy Hummel couldn’t make it because of a hip injury. Still, the performances more than satisfied the supportive crowd of 2,000 sprawled on the grassy lawn at Levitt Shell, who seemed unperturbed by the onset of rain an hour into the concert.
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“You think Alex and Chris are looking down and cracking up at this?” quipped Benson. “Rain or shine, long live Big Star.”
The notoriously skeptical Chilton would likely have dismissed the whole idea of a tribute concert. Regardless, the posthumous lionization of Chilton’s work is gaining momentum. His death received a remarkable amount of national coverage, as the mainstream media finally recognized his role as a key exponent of blue-eyed soul (with the Box Tops), power pop (with Big Star) and the indie-rock sensibility (as a feisty, eclectic solo artist). A documentary about his life, titled Nothing Can Hurt Me, will further raise his profile. Plans are to have it out by late 2011, according to filmmakers Danielle McCarthy and Drew DeNicola.
Stephens affirmed that his relationship with Auer and Stringfellow will continue. “We’ll keep doing this if people want to hear it,” said the soft-spoken drummer before the show. “I can’t imagine not playing with Ken and John. It’s a way to keep the music going.”