Big Star Tribute, New York, 3-26-11


There is not much to say, not much that needs to be said. The night was about playing the songs, making them as big and bold and bright as the fantasies everyone had the first time they heard them, songs that made them pick up a guitar or write a song, take a chance.

I was thinking tonight that as many musical touchstones that I have, that this is my musical lineage, from Big Star to the dBs to R.E.M. to the Replacements and beyond, that connection that once upon a time meant everything – back when R.E.M. couldn’t get commercial FM airplay in New York City without calling in favors. When everything else – even my beloved Bruce – was HUGE and BIG and LOUD, we had our bands that we cared about, the bands that forged a foundation and a network, the bands that acknowledged what they loved, Peter Buck going to look for Alex in Memphis and the story about people telling him to go to a hotel, and when he asked why, does he live there, being told it was because he was driving a cab and often hung out there looking for fares.

The show was the third album – Sister Lovers – all the way through. But this was not a tribute show in which artists interpret or put their own stamp on the music – the point of this show was to recreate the record, in its big, messy, complicated gloriousness. You have to care, a lot, about getting it right, to do something like this. It has to matter. You have to find musicians to whom it also matters. And given that this was a benefit, you have to find people who will do this for free.

It was an astonishing night of music, which, given the people involved, I fully expected. It was perfectly executed, which, given Chris Stamey was musical director, I also fully expected. There wasn’t a disappointing note the entire evening. There was one false start – Jody Stephens looked at everyone and said something like, “This is live music,” – but that was it. They were able to duplicate the feeling of listening to those records, of being enveloped by the sound. Everything about the evening – even the tardy start, due to over-the-top security – was thoroughly Chiltonesque in vision.

For me, personally, I had half of the dBs and half of R.E.M. and Mitch Easter and then they played “Alex Chilton” – which, you might think is totally hokey and totally obvious and it was all of those things but it was also MIKE MILLS PLAYING BASS ON “ALEX CHILTON” which is the kind of thing that would have spawned long-distance phone calls from payphones back in the day. And Stamey took the solo, impeccably, and Mike rocked out and Jody Stephens himself played drums.

They went through the album – covers included, Mitch picking up the Kinks, even – and then we got the hit parade, your “September Gurls” and “I Am The Cosmos” and Tift Merritt sang “Thirteen” and the aforementioned Replacements nod. The cast of thousands returns to the stage, led by Michael Stipe, and just when I’m starting to parse what is left for the group to sing:

“Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane…ain’t got time to take a fast train…”

Holy FUCK! “The Letter”. I have heard a lot of R.E.M. covers in my day but never got to hear Stipe sing this. I am caught off guard. I forget I have a camera that can FILM things until we’re one verse in. Chris Stamey told a story earlier about one of those shows he played at CB’s with Alex and how Alex took the blender that Hilly had there, back when they served food, and he played the blender, and so when Michael Stipe holds up a hairdryer at the microphone and I am thinking it is that until I realize it is making that WHOOOSH sound at the end of the song and you don’t know whether to laugh or cry or both.

And then Jody comes out one more time, to mention Andy Hummel and Chris Bell and Jim Dickinson, this is after a heartfelt speech about Alex and how he is missed and how he is still with him and how he is here. I feel like finally I got to say goodbye to Alex, Alex who left us too soon, Alex who will always be with us.