Release Date: Oct 8, 2013
Record label: Bar/None Records
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Rock & Roll, Roots Rock, College Rock
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.
Every tape collector has one crown jewel—a recording of a night where a favorite artist was totally on—and Alex Chilton really needed a tape like that in his discography. Chilton's three albums with Big Star are stone classics; his subsequent recording career was spotty, and after 1987's High Priest he never made a particularly worthwhile studio album. The last 20 years of his life yielded a few sterile-to-perverse records, the cash-in of the Box Tops and Big Star reunions, and not much else besides live shows that the faithful swore were sometimes really good, if Alex was in the mood.
The sound quality is iffy, the track list is scattered and someone has a really annoying laugh, but there’s a sense of magic underpinning this inadvertent live album that captures Alex Chilton performing an acoustic set at the Knitting Factory in New York in 1997. Although Chilton received a well-deserved deeper look this year in the Big Star documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me, that part of his career has been comparatively well-covered. Electricity by Candlelight comes from Chilton’s lesser-known solo years, when he was given to playing whatever he wanted without regard for the material that had brought him, for example, to the Knitting Factory that February, when the power went off just before he and his band were to play their second set of the night.
Electricity by Candlelight captures the sort of impromptu performance that nearly always exists only in the memories of its delighted audience. In February of 1997, Alex Chilton had finished a set at the Knitting Factory in New York City when the club unexpectedly lost power. After refunds had been issued to exiting attendees, part of the audience stayed behind and was treated to a candlelit set when Chilton appeared on the floor and was handed an acoustic guitar.
Just off Bleecker Street, in the West Village, Manhattan and we’re digging for records, some choice, chance piece of delectable vinyl to take home as a souvenir of this wonderful trip. It’s May 2013. This is a beautiful vinyl-only record store, the name of which was neither photographed nor remembered and I’ve already got A Charlie Brown Christmas by the Vince Guaraldi Trio on festive green vinyl under my arm – an out-of-season snap at $10.
Alex Chilton died three years ago, but his cult status lives on. He is best remembered for being in Big Star, which released three records in the ’70s that are all on Rolling Stone’s list of “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” But what might tarnish his legacy is this dubious new live album from his second set at New York’s Knitting Factory after the lights went out in 1997. It’s an intriguing concept, but is pretty much a disaster.
The situation covered by this often-bootlegged recording is: the power went out at the Knitting Factory right before a set by Alex Chilton and his band, so the erstwhile Big Star leader borrowed an acoustic guitar and played an impromptu set of covers. Joined on some tunes by drummer Richard Dworkin, Chilton considers requests, banters with audience members and plays songs off the top of his head, with a running theme of finding “that magic folk song that will shut this thing down. ” Taking on everything from Loudon Wainwright’s “Motel Blues” and Chet Baker’s “Let’s Get Lost” to Nina Simone’s “My Baby Just Cares For Me” and a trio of Beach Boys tunes, Chilton sounds relaxed, peppering his performance with sardonic asides and demonstrating a guitar mastery beyond power pop and rock & roll.