AUSTIN, Texas — It was unseasonably cold deep in the heart of Texas on Saturday night, as winds howled and low-hanging clouds swallowed up the moon. It was the kind of weather that seems to lend itself to mourning.
But inside venerable Austin blues bar Antone’s, mourning wasn’t on the menu (there were, however, tacos). Instead, friends, colleagues and disciples of the late Alex Chilton, who died earlier this week of an apparent heart attack, had gathered to pay tribute to the man and his music. And while there were a few tears shed, this was a night very much dedicated to celebration.
Originally scheduled as a South by Southwest closing concert by Chilton’s influential power-pop band Big Star, the Antone’s gig instead became a memorial show . Original Star drummer Jody Stephens and newer members Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer (who joined the band when it reformed in 1993) served as a house band as a host of top-flight talent sat in to perform Chilton’s songs and celebrate his life. Canceling the show was never an option.
Before things got under way, Stephens addressed the crowd, telling them he was “stunned and shocked” by Chilton’s passing, and thanked the Austin musical community for its outpouring of support in the days following his death. He said his heart went out to Chilton’s wife, Laura, and a letter she had written for the evening was read. In the note, Laura Chilton remembered her husband as a “spontaneous, honest and generous man … who usually befriended the underdogs.”
The letter brought tears to those onstage and in the audience, but as soon as Stephens was joined by Stringfellow and Auer, the sadness stopped. The trio welcomed Meat Puppet Curt Kirkwood to the stage to play guitar and sing on a stomping pair of Big Star classics — “Don’t Lie to Me” and “In the Street.”
Up next was guitarist/producer Chris Stamey, who played with Chilton early in his career and went on to form jangle-pop outfit the dBs. The quartet launched into “I Am the Cosmos” (written by late Big Star member Chris Bell), highlighted by a weeping Stamey guitar solo, and “When My Baby’s Beside Me.”
She & Him’s M.Ward appeared next (Auer introduced him as “a guy who used to take karate lessons with Alex”) to do a somber, acoustic version of “Big Black Car.” Then original Star bassist Andy Hummel — who left the band shortly before the release of their 1974 album, Radio City — picked up a guitar, and as die-hard fans cheered wildly, the foursome took on “Way Out West.”
R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills sang lead on an effervescent “Jesus Christ.” John Doe from X did the same on “I’m in Love With a Girl,” and 27-year-old Norwegian singer Sondre Lerche turned in perhaps the night’s finest performance, a bell-clear and big-voiced turn on the classic “The Ballad of el Goodo,” which left the crowd shouting their approval.
Evan Dando performed a brief acoustic tribute. Surly singer-songwriter Chuck Prophet blasted through “Thank You Friends,” and then, finally, the tribute entered the homestretch. Auer thanked Chilton’s friends for performing, and the crowd for their support, then announced, “We’ve exhausted our supply of songs, except for this last one.”
And then, with Mills, Hummel, singer Susan Cowsill, and the Watson Twins joining them onstage, the band began playing the wistful, wonderful “September Gurls,” all joining forces on the chorus and letting the guitars ring loudly. The crowd called out for more, but that was it. Stephens, Auer and Stringfellow embraced, bowed and disappeared offstage. Seconds later, as the crowd clapped and a spotlight shone on a lone microphone stand, Stephens reappeared and addressed the crowd once more, thanking them for the wonderful memories and their unyielding support for the band as they struggle with the loss of their friend.
“You’ve wrapped your arms around us,” Stephens said, choking up a bit. “We appreciate it.”