Never travel far without a little Big Star: Channeling Chilton at City Winery

I’ve just come off the long overdue opportunity to attend three different concerts in an eight day spell in New York City. Each of them was special. Each of them was different. Each served as a reminder that New York remains one of the best cities in the world in which to see live music.

First up was the Channeling Chilton Tribute to Alex Chilton at City Winery on Wednesday July 28. I’ve been to City Winery once before, where three of us ran up what seemed like an alarmingly large tab for a single bottle of wine and some late night snacks in what looked like an abnormally vast and, on that occasion, worrisomely empty location. Attending for a concert, though, was a whole different ball game. The block long Tribeca club, opened by Knitting Factory founder Michael Dorf to combine his long-standing love of live music with his increasing love of good wine (City Winery both produces and cellars its own wine on site), offers fantastic views of the stage regardless of position. (Think of a more modern and welcoming Bottom Line and you’ll get the idea.) I arrived with a friend too late to get seats in the main area in front of the stage, but we were just as happy with stools at a high round bar table a little further back; we didn’t feel hemmed in, we could talk a little without disturbing people, and we still had a fantastic view – even though all these advantages diminished as the place became more crowded and active over the course of the evening. The staff were incredibly friendly, both when I called in advance and on the night (we were especially taken by our waitress, who knew her wine just as well as she knew how to butter us up as her customers). The wine list was impressive, with offerings by the glass both fairly priced and expertly chosen: any bar that offers Domaine De La Pépière’s Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine as its entry level white wine, and Jean-Paul Brun’s Terres Dorees Beaujolais as its entry level red, is a place that clearly knows great inexpensive wine from bad expensive wine. The $9 price tag for these, poured generously in a sizeable crystal glass, was only a dollar more than I pay for generic Castle Rock in a plastic cup at the Bearsville Theater at home in Woodstock. (And I was pleased to see that Magic Hat’s beers were available by the bottle for just $6 or $7.) Finally, at least in terms of reviewing the venue itself, the concert ticket itself was just $28 (with no booking charges or increased fee on the night), for three hours of uninterrupted music, a veritable bargain – with part proceeds going to families and businesses affected by the Deepwater Horizon Disaster through the Gulf Restoration Network.


Ronnie Spector and friends performing the rare Chilton track “Baby You’re Okay” at City Winery.

As for that music, it was the kind of all-star show such as you often only get in New York. Those who joined in the festivities to honor the recently departed Mr. Chilton included Chris Stamey and Sondre Lerche (the pair performed the beautiful “I First Saw You” at the start of the night); Yo La Tengo, joined by Jon Spencer and Russell Simmons; Alan Vega (who sang a rousing version of Suicide’s “Keep Your Dreams” that he insisted was a Chilton favorite as well as Chilton’s own “Rubber Room”); Evan Dando; the remaining members of Chilton’s teenage band, the Box Tops, who took a trip down nostalgia lane with the rather arch “Choo Choo Train,” the almost hilariously cod-psychedelic 1967 period piece, “Neon Rainbow,” an impressive “Soul Deep” and, of course, “The Letter,” a number one hit for the band back when Chilton was but 16; the inimitable Ronnie Spector, who performed her own “Walking In The Rain” (another Chilton favorite?) but also the apparently unreleased Chilton song “Baby You’re Okay”; the Glories’ lead singer Danny Kroha, who admitted that when Chilton produced his band many years ago, he mainly “slept on the couch” but that they had loved him all the same; Marshall Crenshaw; and a rather teary-eyed Big Star reunion of sorts, allowing that drummer Jody Stephens is now the band’s only living original member, one that ended, understandably, with the immortal “September Girl.” That left just enough time for evergreen downtown punk icon Jesse Malins to take to the now over-crowded stage, and bring the audience to their feet for a suitably rousing run-through of, yes, the Replacements’ classic “Alex Chilton.” Of all the artists who performed, only the Box Tops ever topped the American charts, but any night you can see Ronnie Spector and Alan Vega on the same stage, you should thank your lucky stars.

IMG_5816 The set list in full.

If I had a criticism of the event, it would be the lack of an MC; set changes occurred without any real explanation and we were frequently left playing catch up with the list of performers. Crowd noise rose accordingly during these periods and a good compère, perhaps discussing Chilton’s life for those, like my friend, who knew but the barest of biographical details, would have served for a successful series of segues. But if that’s the only criticism I can offer, then you can take it as read that this was a near perfect night out. Congratulations to Dorff and City Winery for quickly finding their feet and providing Manhattan with such a wonderful new location.

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