When Alex Chilton died of heart failure on March 17 of this year, his pioneering power pop band Big Star was booked to play a high-profile showcase at SXSW three days later. The news hit on the first night of the festival, which had gathered countless musicians directly or indirectly influenced by Chilton's songwriting and prescient indie rock sensibility. The scheduled Big Star panel was turned into a poignant exchange of Alex remembrances, and the Big Star show became a quickly organized memorial concert, with an expanded roster of mourning artists.
Appropriate as these events were, they took place amid the shell shock of Chilton's unexpected death--so it's not surprising that his friends and collaborators would want to plan further, more inclusive tributes down the line. Wednesday's (July 28) "Channeling Chilton" concert at City Winery in New York accomplished a couple of things--it honored Chilton's music and influence with a broad group of performers, and it raised money to benefit people affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Chilton lived in New Orleans when he died, and 100% of the proceeds from ticket sales were donated to the Gulf Restoration Network.
City Winery and Knitting Factory founder Michael Dorf introduced the evening by displaying a bottle of cabernet with a label designed by R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe, sales of which would also benefit Gulf cleanup. Then the music began with Chris Stamey, who played with Chilton for a year in the late 1970s after Chilton "stayed on my couch one Valentine's Day and didn't leave." Backed by a seven-piece band that included Chilton's widow Laura on flute, Stamey played "Kangaroo" from Big Star's 1978 album "Third/Sister Lovers".
Indie-rock mainstays Yo La Tengo took the stage next, giving a dreamy acoustic performance of "Take Care," also from "Third/Sister Lovers". They then did a spirit-raising rendition of jazz standard "My Baby Just Cares for Me," which YLT frontman Ira Kaplan noted "wasn't written by Alex, but we first heard it sung by him". Kaplan and wife/drummer Georgia Hubley were later joined by fiery garage rocker Jon Spencer, who delivered an explosive (naturally) performance of Chilton's "Bangkok".
One of the evening's more electrifying guests was Alan Vega, vocalist for electronic protopunk duo Suicide who collaborated with Chilton on 1996's "Cubist Blues". Vega joined Kaplan for a booming, squealing shot of Chilton's "Rubber Room," followed by Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream". In all black with dark sunglasses, Vega commanded the space with bursts of spoken word and wild gesticulations. He doubtless left some sparks in the air for the Box Tops, the late-'60s Memphis group that Chilton began fronting when he was just 16. "Sixty-seven was the summer of love, '68 was the summer of penicillin," explained guitarist Gary Talley between the group's hits "Choo Choo Train" and "Cry Like a Baby".
Box Top Bill Cunningham mused that the diverse evening gave some clue as to "what Alex Chilton's record collection must have sounded like." After several more songs by the band, including their biggest hit "The Letter," Ronnettes singer Ronnie Spector joined members of the Box Tops and Alex Chilton and the Cossacks for "Walking in the Rain" and "Baby, You're OK," an unknown Chilton-penned song that honored Spector's signature trill. Still in fine vocal form and smokin'-hot, Spector had to read the unfamiliar lyrics from a piece of paper, but it hardly mattered.
Other performers included the Gories' Danny Kroha on covers "Ti-Na-Ni-Na-Nu" and "Little GTO," and Chilton's former girlfriend vocalist Lesa Aldridge, who sang on "Third/Sister Lovers" and seemed nervous but committed.
The final and longest set came from the current members of Big Star, who ran with full energy through the band's songs including "In the Street," "With My Baby Beside Me" and "Way Out West," written by bassist Andy Hummel, whose death this month added an extra layer of poignancy to the event. Lemonheads frontman Evan Dando joined the band for "Nightime," and then members of all Chilton bands present gathered for what guitarist Jon Auer called "perhaps the most overplayed and over-covered song in the Big Star oeuvre," "Thirteen". After particularly tear-welling performances of Chilton's "Blue Moon" and Big Star's "The Ballad of El Goodo," Jesse Malin joined the collected bands to end the set with the Replacements' 1987 ode "Alex Chilton".
Most of the evening's music was top shelf, but it was equally endearing when it wasn't. The group of collaborators and admirers who gathered on stage didn't mind reading lyrics or re-starting songs or playing tunes they'd only rehearsed a few times, as long as they played what they felt Chilton would have wanted. As strange, troubled and baffling as Chilton could be in life, it was clear from this evening alone that his creative and gravitational effects on several generations of artists was formidable. "If Alex were here he'd be really proud," said Cunningham. "He'd be kicking my butt is what he'd be doing, but he'd be happy."