Alex Chilton

Electricity by Candlelight: NYC 2/13/97

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When Alex Chilton (he of the unparalleled power pop songwriting majesty of Big Star and his own catalog of incredible solo material) was playing a two-set gig at N.Y.C.'s Knitting Factory on a February night in 1997, the power unexpectedly went out after the first set and most of the crowd went home. Some stragglers hung around in the darkness, bummed to only get a partial show and taking their time in exiting. Before too long, Chilton re-emerged with a borrowed acoustic guitar to play a few songs for the remaining crowd, with an off-the-cuff, unamplified performance to make up for the evening being cut short, and one that longtime fan Jeff Vargon captured on a hand-held cassette recorder. All of this brings us to the 2013 release of Electricity by Candlelight, the proper release of the audio from that incredibly intimate, one-of-a-kind set. The sound quality is bootleg at best, even in professionally mastered form. Were this a run-of-the-mill set, the sound alone would push this release into the "completists only" category, as vocals are muddy and sometimes drowned out by the giggling and caterwauling of the audience. There's something transcendent about this particular document, however, as one of rock's more celebrated songwriters plays through a set completely free of his own songs, opting to roll through standards like "Girl from Ipanema," country singalongs, and covers of personal favorites by Joni Mitchell and Johnny Cash. Chilton sounds at first like he's trying to placate disappointed fans with a few numbers, saying he'll "just play one more" after the fourth or fifth tune, but then something turns and he continues to play on for more than an hour, taking audience requests, cracking jokes, and eventually being joined midway through by drummer Richard Dworkin on tastefully restrained snare and hi-hat. You get the sense that he's remembering how fun it can be to try things out, stumbling through "If I Had a Hammer," playing half of FM country semi-novelty tune "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" to the delight of one particularly rowdy fan, or giving a chilling reading of Loudon Wainwright's desperate "Motel Blues," seemingly more for himself than his listeners. The set peaks with a trio of Brian Wilson tunes including versions of "Surfer Girl" and "Wouldn't It Be Nice" that gleam with a touching vulnerability. Chilton is exposing himself as a religiously devoted fan of all the music he's playing, which takes on a new context when he's playing it for devoted fans of his own music. Somewhere between slumber party and rock & roll church service, Electricity by Candlelight captures a truly special moment in the life of one of American music's most valuable songwriters, and gives a warm and welcoming window into his own inspirations.

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