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O My Soul

The South by Southwest music festival takes on a somber tone after the passing of Big Star founder Alex Chilton

By John Brodeur

‘Another year in the trenches,” or so I thought as I landed in Austin, Texas, for March’s annual four-day music-industry lovefest, South by Southwest. I must admit to having diminished expectations for this year’s festival. There were less gold-star bands on the schedule, at least to my eyes, and after walking the length of East 6th Street about 750 times last year I figured on being less of a seeker. This time, for me, it was about playing my own shows, seeing some old friends, and catching just a few bands a night—have fun, and keep it manageable.

In the weeks leading up to SXSW 2010, however, the addition of one showcase caught my attention: a Saturday-night performance by the great 1970s power-pop band Big Star. Even this was the slightest bit ho-hum—I’d just seen the band in Brooklyn last November—but it was still the gold-star event of the week in my book. This was paired with a daytime panel called “I Never Travel Far Without a Little Big Star,” which would feature members of the band, journalists, and peers, in a discussion of Big Star’s music and legacy to coincide with the recent release of a comprehensive Big Star box set, Keep An Eye on the Sky.

So there was something to look forward to.

Alex Chilton passed away on March 17 at the age of 59 in his adopted hometown of New Orleans. He had been experiencing chest pain and asked his wife Laura to drive him to the hospital. He lost consciousness during the drive and never returned.

I found out that night, the music festival’s opening night (an “interactive” fest ran the four days prior), during my first acoustic set of the week. I was playing to a room airy with indifference, at one of the many Austin “venues” that only exist during SXSW (the rented PA system and lack of a stage are obvious clues). I’d just begun playing the opening chords of my final song when my phone, on the floor at my feet, lit up. I bent at the waist to read the text—not something I’d usually do mid-set, but everyone else was looking at their phones, so why not. The message was from a good friend back in New York, passing on the bad news.

Deal breaker. “Fuck” was the only thing that came to mind (a sentiment later repeated by Evan Dando in his closing-night performance). I stopped playing my song and instead broke into “Thirteen,” the timeless ode to unrequited teenage adoration, in tribute. It stayed in my set for the rest of the week.

Chilton’s music, under the Big Star banner, has been a tremendous influence on my own music over the years. I remember first hearing about Big Star in the early 1990s, probably via a Rolling Stone review of one of their reissues. I picked up the CD containing their first two albums, #1 Record and Radio City, and was hooked. They were one of the great cult legends—a band whose records sold few copies, but had taken on such high regard among musicians that they were elevated above the commonplace. Chilton had done plenty of other things with his career, from his stint as a teen idol singing for the Box Tops to a series of R&B-flavored solo records through the 1980s and ’90s. But for any fan of classic power-pop, Big Star was one of the “three B’s,” along with the Beatles and Badfinger. And because of this, Chilton’s loss was going to be felt in a big way.

Word spread in a manner that seemed positively old-fashioned: Amid all the bloggers and Twitterati, word of mouth was the primary means for sharing the news. All that night, on street corners throughout Austin, people were asking “Did you hear about Alex Chilton?” And in a town full of musicians and industry folks, reactions divided in pretty much the same way they always have on this topic: You either love him, or you’ve never heard of him. (When addressing a non-fan it helps to point out, as I had to with my mother, that they probably already know one of Chilton’s songs: Cheap Trick’s cover of “In the Street” has been widely heard in syndication, as the theme for That 70’s Show.)

Alternative weekly The Austin Chronicle, which publishes daily during SXSW, ran a tribute to Chilton on its Thursday cover. The short obituary inside revealed that original Big Star bassist Andy Hummel (who wrote the band’s great song “Way Out West,” among others) had recently been back in touch with Chilton, and drummer Jody Stephens (who sang “Way Out West” in concert) had hoped to get them writing and recording together again. Sadly, this would not come to pass.

For me, Chilton’s passing was a minor call to arms. You could have your Surfer Blood or whatever band the blogs were hot for that day—I made it a point to see some legends whenever I could, while I could. Which led me to La Zona Rosa on Thursday night, where Austin’s own Roky Erickson played a ragged but righteous set backed by Okkervil River, in celebration of his first album of new material in almost 15 years. And it led me to the smallish Dirty Dog Bar on Friday night, where Courtney Love and the band she’s now calling Hole played a borderline dreadful 1 AM set. (I wasn’t quite sure, either, why I decided on attending—that is, until I was standing shoulder to shoulder to Ms. Love at the bar after the show. Sur-real.) And Saturday night, it was another power-pop cult legend, Tommy Keene, who’s flown comfortably under the radar for decades yet seems no worse for wear. He’s even passed the torch: Keene’s 12-year-old son played drums behind his dad, and he was killer.

But Saturday was Big Star day. The daytime panel and the closing-night showcase at Antone’s both turned into tributes to Chilton. The panel was both touching and funny, with Big Star Mach II members Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow talking about working with their fallen comrade, but also beaming about the music they had been fans of for so many years.

The showcase, however, had the feel of an Irish wake. After the band’s publicist read a heart-rending letter from Chilton’s widow, Stephens, Auer and Stringfellow simply crushed the Radio City gem “Back of a Car,” and later paid tribute to late Big Star co-founder Chris Bell with “I Am the Cosmos,” which doubled as an elegy for Chilton in its “Really wanna see you again” refrain. A series of guests joined the band, from M. Ward to Chris Stamey (who played in Chilton’s first solo band, and nailed the solo on “Cosmos”). Hummel played with the group for the first time, reportedly, since 1974. Evan Dando gave his one-F-word introduction before a touching version of “Nighttime.” And Mike Mills of R.E.M., whose band is the reason a lot of people heard about Big Star in the first place, sang lead on “Jesus Christ,” fine and pure of voice. Keep playing those songs and someday children by the millions will indeed sing for Alex Chilton.



Have you and your band ever dreamed of performing on the Saratoga Performing Arts Center stage? Until you can sell about 10,000 tickets, here’s your next-best bet. On May 21, SPAC will host a Battle of the Bands at the Spa Little Theatre as a part of the venue’s extended season. Ten finalists will be chosen to perform via public vote, based on YouTube audition videos (and an application form); winning acts will be selected by audience response at the event, plus input from a panel of local luminaries. The prize package includes a professionally recorded five-song EP, custom T-shirts and stickers, and airplay on radio station WEQX.

But, there is a but: Buried at the end of the press release trumpeting the band b battles is the following stanza: “If selected for one of the 10 finalist positions, bands must agree to purchase 25 tickets at $15 each, which can then be sold or given away to fans, friends and family.”

So: There is no entry fee, but a $375 fee if you win. Do with that what you will.

Check out for all the details and submission info.

AND: NOW It’s not just talk: The Interwebs really are the wave of the future for local radio. After a lengthy hiatus from broadcasting, Barbara Kaiser, host of long-running WRPI show Jazz & . . ., has announced her eclectically programmed show’s triumphant return. Kaiser’s three-hour weekly program is now streaming on Ye Olde Internette at

THEY GOT THE JACK Just when you think you’ve heard it all, you turn on the car stereo and hear Steely Dan segue into Daughtry. “Adult hits” station The Bridge 100.9 FM recently took over the frequency formerly occupied by Magic 100.9 (now at AM 590). The station, owned by Albany Broadcasting, plays mostly ’80s hits with the occasional currently popular song tossed in—which means it’s kind of weird.

A second Albany Broadcasting band, hard-rock station The Edge 104.9, also flipped a few weeks ago—to a country format. 104.9 The Cat aims to put up a fight against country stalwart 107.7 WGNA in the ratings. The flip left an excellent local-music resource, the Ralph Renna-hosted Capital Underground, temporarily homeless. But Renna is quickly back up and running, having smartly taken his act to the World Wide Web. The show is streaming at, and reaching a larger audience than ever before. Sounds like a win/win.

—John Brodeur

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