In just 13 songs, the many phases of Alex Chilton

Categories: Chicago Sun-Times

Rocker seems to wing it in rare concert at Old Town School

By Mark Guarino

He has no website, no album, no tour, no band and on one spot atop his head, no hair.

Alex Chilton may be woefully deficient compared against the checklist adding up a music career these days, but he possesses the one thing any musician with an eye for longevity would crave: mythology.

He and it confronted the other for roughly one hour Saturday at the Old Town School of Folk Music when Chilton performed a sometime shambolic and occasionally brilliant, rare show. The sold-out audience, all Chilton sycophants, greeted his arrival like they were welcoming home a long lost uncle; there were moments Chilton acted like he didn’t care to be found.

“I, of course, am Alex Chilton — on crack,” he said, smiling, after introducing the pair of pick-up musicians who accompanied him onstage. “I have nothing to contribute. I have nothing to add to the dialogue.”

Darting in and out of the shadows groomed decades of fascination with Chilton who, in the late 1960s, growled like a man three times his 16 years on “The Letter” and other hits with the Box Tops, a teenage group from Memphis that introduced gritty Southern soul to bubblegum pop.

In subsequent years and through many different phases, Chilton appeared to be chasing after his own vision of stardom that may not have resulted immediate hits, but earned him a legion of younger followers who were drawn to his melodic gifts and connected to his irreverence with the music industry and restless experimentation.

Saturday’s brief show hit all those notes, a sort of Cliff’s Notes Chilton in 13 songs. One reason why the mention of his name is enough to jolt arcane record collectors and liner notes obsessives awake is his freewheeling range of styles. His 1979 album “Like Flies on Sherbert” (Peabody) included covers from The Carter Family and KC & The Sunshine Gang, a connect-the-dot sensibility that may have sounded peculiar in the pre-iTunes era but is perfectly in step with today’s world of playlists and mixed CDs.

Chilton tread similar ground, resulting in covers of Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You,” plus songs that glorious era of early rock history before rock, country, jazz or soul were divvied up and segregated to different audiences. These included “Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette)” and “Sick and Tired,” two songs by forgotten New Orleans R&B greats Benny Spellman and Chris Kenner, respectively, and “Hook Me Up” from Johnny “Guitar” Watson.

Chilton’s band, including Chicago native Richard Dworkin on drums, rehearsed as they went along. Before each song, Chilton discussed keys and tempos, and when they finally played, he was not adverse to flubbing chord changes or missing a verse.

That breezy approach had its charms, possibly because Chilton at age 57 still summons teenage wonder in his voice, especially when playing “The Letter” as well as “In the Street” and “When My Baby’s Beside Me,” the two songs borrowed from Big Star, his former and beloved power-pop group.

Yet his guitar playing was scared with the barbed wire tension only maturity brings. Set at an unsettling volume for the Old Town’s intimate space and drowned in dirty reverb that suggested his amplifier might have had a hole punched through it, Chilton clawed through solos like a manic jazz player, jumping through different meters and losing himself in the music’s cubist maze.

After a one-song encore, he said his goodbyes. His bag and jacket were conveniently on the stage, he grabbed them, waved and dashed into the night.

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