Alex Chilton/Grant Hart; December 7, 2008; Turner Hall
The Turner Hall that we walked into tonight was quite a bit different than the scene I walked into my first time there. Back in September the room was dark and the ancient, charmingly uneven ballroom floor half full with people pressed up against the stage for the British band James’s first tour in eight years. Tonight we walked into an almost empty room with only candle-lit tables dotting the floor from the stage to the sound board. In case no one else showed up, we took a table right in front of the stage just off of center. As it turned out we didn’t need to worry, the room was respectably full and a few other brave souls had joined us in the front row by the time opener Grant Hart (best known as Husker Du’s drummer) took the stage for his sloppy but undeniably entertaining solo opening set (which thankfully included the awesome “Books About UFOs”).
I had seen Alex Chilton on several other occasions, for every charmingly naïve set (like the one at the Barrymore opening for the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion where he feigned ignorance of the popularity of That 70’s Show and the fact that a cover of Big Star’s “In the Street” was its theme) there was a less pleasant experience (like the Club Tavern show just after the 2000 release of Set where he wouldn’t play any requests, and the audience was equally unreasonable shushing anyone who dared speak). Granted, I don’t blame him for occasionally having a hostile relationship with the audience. If someone repeatedly yelled for “oldies” and more specifically “Wooly Bully” after I played my classic “The Letter” there’s no way I would have ever given in and played it. But he did do that at a long ago show at Milwaukee’s waterfront Veteran’s Park during Maritime days. Thank goodness that silly girl wasn’t here tonight.
The last time I saw Chilton was a Big Star reunion show in St Louis where he did his best Mr. Rogers’ impersonation, wearing a cardigan and being all neighborly. Tonight he was once again dressed like someone’s father with a white turtleneck and a warm looking sweater (which he unfortunately took off halfway through). As in the past he showed he has a great appreciation for a well-chosen cover. A long ago hit from a forgotten label (the name of which I of course forgot), a cover of the Italian classic “Il Rebel,” and “Michael Jackson’s greatest song” (which he claims is “Rock With You,” I’d have to go with “Billie Jean”) all dotted his too short set amidst the few Big Star songs and of course “The Letter.” His able, all-business rhythm section followed his lead without ever calling attention to themselves. It seemed he had just gotten started when he bid us good night, returning only for a cover of “Maybelline” for the encore. In a set this short I couldn’t help but I wish he had played more of his own material and less of other people’s, no matter how well he did them.