The late Alex Chilton was one of the most enigmatic figures in pop music. From his gruff, teenage vocals on the hit "The Letter" to the pop masterpieces of Big Star to his production work with The Cramps and Panther Burns and subsequent solo records, Chilton played his music and pursued his career however he saw fit. Between that attitude and his music, Chilton became one of the cult personalities of rock 'n' roll. His music affected millions and influenced everyone from The Replacements to R.E.M. He is often associated with his hometown of Memphis, Tenn., but in the early 1980s Chilton moved to New Orleans, where he recorded several records and worked with local musicians. Some of those musicians are performing in a tribute to him at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
Bassist Rene Coman, best known for his work in the Iguanas, is the mastermind behind the project. Coman played with Chilton intermittently, including gigs opening for the Clash and a very short run on Bourbon Street. The lineup for the tribute includes drummer Doug Garrison (Iguanas), guitarists Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum) and Alex McMurray (Tin Men/Valparaiso Men's Chorus) and singer Susan Cowsill.
"We're going to draw from the core of the live set that Alex would do: Big Star songs he liked, solo act stuff that he would do," Coman says. "Like Alex, we're not being pedantic about it. I don't want to do anything he would make a face at."
Chilton's music varied greatly over his career, and they'll draw from different aspects.
"He had a lot of different bags," McMurray says. "The Big Star thing with the shimmering pop and triplet fill drums. And then he went totally off the deep end and went into the rockabilly thing. Then he's got that record Cliches where he does standards playing by himself. ... The choices in his music are really right. You can tell he knows a lot of music. He's a listener; he's got great taste."
Coman believes Chilton's passion for music clinched his appeal.
"Alex had a real emotionalism about him and his performances," he says. "He was committed to whatever was there — to the essence of what he was trying to get at (musically). That speaks to people."