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December 23, 2000
Alex Chilton - the enigmatic figure behind legendary Memphis rockers Big Star and one of music's all-time recalcitrant heroes - is a Changed Man. Sort of. The old Alex defied all known logic and reason; in the intervening years since he first dissolved the band back in the mid-'70s, Chilton has inexplicably veered from one stylistic locale (psychotic rockabilly) to another (lounge tunes such as "Volare," messily tossed off in an almost-venomous display of disdain for any kind of audience he might have left), flipping the bird to the masses and generally doing whatever the hell he pleased, damn the commercial or artistic consequences. The new Alex, however, is back in the game for giggles. Chilton now plays three or four Big Star shows per year with the same lineup that first came together at the request of University of Missouri festival organizers back in 1993 - original drummer Jody Stephens and Posies/fanboys Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow on guitar and bass, respectively - and appears to be having (for him, at least) a reasonable facsimile of a good time. He even deigned to linger in the crowd after this evening's show, sharing smokes and a cat-that-ate-the-canary grin with a line of fans who hung around after the bell in the hope of meeting one of the genre's most bewildering characters. Maybe the Prozac has finally kicked in? Or the 12-step wisdom Chilton purportedly employed in the wake of his "lost period" self-immolating drink/drugs bender? Whatever the reason, Chilton's demeanor belied that of a man for whom frustration and bitterness have come to represent an indelible mark on nearly all of his best work.
Largely reprising the set list found on the Columbia document of the reformed quartet's first gig together, Chilton's latter-day Big Star is as close to the original model as is earthly possible - and it has actually managed to stay together longer, on a sporadic basis, than the original issue. Auer and Stringfellow have always had an air of the Hollies about them (particularly in the harmony department), and when their considerable talents are applied to the evergreen songwriting of Chilton in his prime, you can literally see the sparks fly. Forgive my discursive bent, but let's revisit the Changed Man theory again for a moment: You'd likely expect Chilton to totally renounce his classic "In The Street" now that Fox has made it the theme for That '70s Show (thus ensuring a full third of tonight's curiously sparse audience was present on the strength of this one song alone). Instead, the group led off with this right hook and kept up a flurry of short, sharp shocks for the next two hours in an epic display of chops and timeless pop savvy. Although occasionally betraying flashes of the patented sloppiness he later inspired in bands ranging from the Replacements to the Afghan Whigs, Chilton was in incredible voice and form throughout the evening, making it challenging to narrow down the show's full complement of transcendent moments into a tidy bundle.
Is it Chilton's incandescent Big Star originals that give you your requisite thrills? He and the band poured forth the should-have-been hits like the evening's frozen rain: a rollicking "Don't Lie To Me" that bristled with all the anger and power of the original; the quicksilver guitar lines and slippery hooks of "Back Of A Car," replete with a lead vocal turn from Auer; the molasses-slow, sugar-sweet intravenous drip of "Daisy Glaze" and the rock-on-life-support of "Big Black Car"; and simply jaw-dropping versions of "Thirteen" and "The Ballad Of El Goodo," which proved to be the evening's highlight by a landslide. When Chilton plunged into the chorus' layered rejoinder of "There ain't no one going to turn me 'round," all assembled were reminded in shattered-glass, stereophonic splendor of just how deeply ingrained the man's stubborn nature really is (which may go a long way toward explaining his insistence on maintaining an entirely unsatisfactory "lounge" persona for the better part of the last decade, out of sheer spite toward the music biz). This said, with Christmas a mere two days away, Chilton proved my Changed Man theory true yet again by putting away his Grinch get-up and breaking out the Sister Lovers obscurity "Jesus Christ" especially for the occasion - albeit with a much more joyous spirit than the original.
Perhaps it's Chilton's propensity to pull out all but the kitchen sink in the way of covers that has lured many a fan into his web over the years. Tonight's show didn't disappoint on this score, either: From time-worn troopers like the Kinks' "'Till The End Of The Day" and T. Rex's leering "Baby Strange" to more obscure nods like Todd Rundgren's "Slut" and Gary & The Hornets' "Patty Girl," Chilton proved he can play fanboy of the particular era he clearly loves so much (Anglophilic power-pop of any/all stripes, circa 1965-1975) as well as any of the many bands that have worshipped his work over the years. By trotting out a lovely, respectful version of the late Chris Bell weeper "I Am the Cosmos," Chilton was able to simultaneously pay respects to a fallen comrade while staying true to his pure-pop jones. Covers also proved to be an interesting way to gauge Chilton's snarky sense of humor: "We're gonna really start playin' hooky now," he smirked before counting down the intro to "Slut." "This is the start of the racy part of the show, and it only gets worse from here on out, y'all." Lighting his cigarette and smirking like Keith Richards from behind a cloud of smoke, Chilton leaned into the tune with a hard-won insouciance, the kind of "who gives a shit?" 'tude born of years of wishing for deserved success but having it all dumped at your feet like mud.
The evening's most telling moment, however, came toward the end of the set, when Chilton dusted off his Sister Lovers sod-off for the ages, "Thank You Friends." All the wasted cynicism and rancor of the original appeared - on this night, at least - to be replaced by genuine affection for those who came out to pay homage to an artist who, if there were any justice, would have long ago hung his platinum albums on the wall and waited for his call from the Rock 'N' Roll Hall Of Fame. To finish my now tireworn theme: The old Chilton once laid bare his ambitions on the Radio City raver "O My Soul": "I can't get a license/To drive in my car/But I don't really need it/If I'm a big star," he wailed. The new Chilton, knowing this dream is forever beyond his grasp, makes like a rock 'n' roll wise man, sharing the credit with devoted fans like the Posies and playing his band's favorites for whoever shows up, his eyes twinkling with the knowledge that he's seen far more than he'll ever be able to tell.
- Corey duBrowa