I’ve never been as close to the center of one of the biggest stories coming out of SXSW as I was this year. I’ve been at headline-making shows, and ones that became bigger in retrospect (The Darkness’ set at the Ritz a few years back, which — if everyone who said they were there had actually been there — would have sold out the Frank Erwin Center). But nothing like this. I’ll explain.
For the past couple of years, my traveling partner has been Bob Mehr. We came up through the ranks at New Times (now Village Voice Media) — he at Phoenix New Times, me at the Dallas Observer. Currently, he’s the music critic at the Commercial Appeal in Memphis. Bob is a much more sought-after writer than I am (he freelances for MOJO and Spin, is working on a book, and is regularly asked to do panels at SXSW), and he should be. He’s better. This year, he was scheduled to moderate a panel about the influence of Big Star, the legendary, star-crossed power-pop band from Memphis; Bob wrote the liner notes to Keep An Eye on the Sky, the fantastic box set devoted to the band that Rhino Records released last year. The band was also scheduled to perform on Saturday night at Antone’s. Both events were already being touted as potential don’t-miss highlights of the festival. That ended up being true, but for a different reason.
On Wednesday night, as Bob and I were about to leave our hotel room to meet friends for dinner, he got a call from John Fry, the head of Ardent Studio in Memphis, where all three Big Star albums were recorded. Alex Chilton, the band’s iconoclastic singer, was dead.
It’s a sad, strange situation writing obituaries. It’s even stranger sitting over someone’s shoulder while they do it, hustling to get the story out, in the right way. Bob did it perfectly, and that’s only one reason he’s better than I am. The rest of the time I was there, I never traveled far without a little Big Star: the memorials were everywhere, even when I caught, by chance, the live debut of OFF! (featuring Keith Morris of the Circle Jerks and Steve McDonald of Redd Kross) it was there in McDonald’s #1 Record t-shirt.
The Saturday panel turned into a remembrance of Chilton by his band mates, friends, and peers. The Saturday night show was sort of the musical version of that. R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills, the dBs’ Chris Stamey, Evan Dando, John Doe (who provided the standout, a gentle version of “I’m In Love With a Girl”), M. Ward, the Watson Twins, the Meat Puppets’ Curt Kirkwood, and others joined Big Star 2.0 (original drummer Jody Stephens, and long-time add-ons Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies). (More on both here.)
It was an uplifting end to a bizarre week.
Band I’m glad I saw in a tiny club: Fang Island at Habana Calle 6. The band describes its sound as “everyone high-fiving everyone,” and there’s really no way I’m topping that.
Biggest regret: Not seeing Wye Oak. Even though they played, like, six times — which pretty much every other group did as well — the stars never aligned for me. Their “Take It In” might have been one of my favorite songs of last year, though I discovered it really late, so I’m bummed I didn’t get to see it live.
Best Twitter tip: F—ed Up playing on the Beerland patio.
Second best Twitter tip: Not bothering to use it. Which I did not heed, as my phone died on consecutive nights, aided and abetted by my decision not to recharge (in more ways than one) by heading back to hotel after the day parties and before the night shows started. That meant I got to see Superchunk and Muse. It also meant lots of wondering how anyone ever found anyone else at something like this in the days before cellphones.
Most disappointing live band: The xx. Like listening to their record through the wall of someone else’s apartment.
Most disappointing venue: the rooftop at Wave. Unless the goal was making sure I mentally got my affairs in order in case someone killed me or I killed someone. In which case: well played.
Biggest trend: Musically? Not sure. Fashion wise: terrible mustaches. It was like a Rollie Fingers lookalike convention. As long as we’re here, the award for best dressed goes to Sharon Jones (of “& the Dap-Kings” fame) with her shimmery, sparkly green dress on St. Patrick’s Day.
Ten best things I was actually there for: Roky Erickson with Okkervil River, The Drums, Fang Island, Big Star tribute, Muse, Band of Horses, Superchunk’s “surprise” show, F—ed Up, We Were Promised Jetpacks, The Walkmen playing “The Rat”
Bonus: Seeing Rolling Stone’s David Fricke bounced back to the end of the line, even after trying to pull the “don’t you know who I am?” routine with the door guy at Antone’s for the Big Star show. I’ve heard he’s a nice guy. I don’t care. I enjoyed it.
Photo: The late Alex Chilton (Marcelo Costa via WikiCommons)