Review: Alex Chilton at Turner Hall Ballroom

Photo by Dale Reince/Pabst Theater
Words by Andrew Falk

My introduction to the music of Alex Chilton was by way of his Scottish disciples, Teenage Fanclub. Pretty much every review of their work names Chilton’s ’70s band Big Star as the blueprint for every note Fanclub has ever played, so I sought out the influential Memphis power-pop band and their wonderfully jangly, satisfying albums #1 Record and Radio City. Chilton, who co-led the band with Chris Bell, had seen previous success with the blue-eyed soul group The Box Tops. That was all 35 or more years ago, though, and I’m not familiar with his solo material, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from his live show.

The opener was Grant Hart, formerly the drummer and co-songwriter of Hüsker Dü, now a solo artist. He performed without a band, using just his voice and guitar to play strong and heartfelt songs that all stayed a little rough around the edges, a slight reminder of his punk heritage. His voice went from a Dylan mumble to a post-punk bellow, depending on what the song needed. The set felt informal and a little sloppy, but his audience interaction and dirty guitar tunes kept everyone’s attention.

Chilton’s set can best be described as simply “rock ‘n roll,” with emphasis on the “‘n roll,” that distinction so frequently dropped when describing music made after, I dunno, the reign of the Beatles. He clearly adores rock ‘n roll, and he crafted his set accordingly. Chilton has a few decades of original songs to choose from, so his song selection was surprising – about half the tunes were cover songs. Some of the cover choices were from the Les Paul and Chet Atkins school of jazzy solos over intricate, classic chord progressions, others were more rockabilly (a rollicking, faithful version of Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” as well as Adriano Celentano’s “Il Ribelle” sung in Italian) or soul (a long-forgotten Stax Records single called “Claim to Fame”) or even disco (an unexpected and wonderful version of Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You.”) He prefaced the Jackson cover by saying that crowds have either loved or hated it, but everyone at Turner Hall seemed to be firmly in the former camp.

Chilton was backed by a utilitarian bass and drum rhythm section who played their parts dutifully and didn’t try to show off, always submitting to the star of the show and following his cues. I have one gripe about the band – neither the bassist nor the drummer performed any backing vocals, so the gorgeous harmonies from many of the Chilton originals as well as the covers were sadly absent. Despite that, Big Star classics like “In the Street” and “When My Baby’s Beside Me” still chimed across the room and the Box Tops’ hit single “The Letter” retained all the charm of its original version, with Chilton showing no sign of being bored of singing the same tune for the last forty years. Chilton’s voice has barely aged at all, occasionally bringing to mind My Aim Is True-era Elvis Costello.

I find it odd that Chilton is sort of a cult hero, since this was the kind of show that I believe anyone (and possibly their parents as well) could enjoy. The performances were lively and accomplished and both Hart and Chilton charmed the audience. I just hope he plays a few more of his own songs next time.


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