Alex Chilton

Alex Chilton

Alex Chilton

Electricity by Candlelight / NYC 2/13/97

Bar/None Records

Alex Chilton and band were set to play a second set at New York’s Knitting Factory on February 13, 1997 when the lights went out. What happened next was a spontaneous example of Chilton’s musical genius.

Instead of calling it an early evening, Chilton borrowed an acoustic guitar and began to sing. He performed 18 songs — none he wrote, no Big Star or Boxtops — giving us a glimpse into his musical passions and influences. Starting with the country weeper “Last Bouquet” by Clyde Owens, his selections touched on folk (“If I Had a Hammer”), country (“D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” “Footprints in the Snow”), bossa nova with a witty call on “Girl From Ipanema,” and the Beach Boys, with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Surfer Girl.” He took requests, told jokes, and performed as if he invented the unplugged craze. Joined by his drummer Richard Dworkin mid-way through the set, Chilton sounded completely at ease and obviously loving it.

If Electricity by Candlelight was merely a bootleg of a one-off stripped performance of cover songs, it would be a fine listen, but when someone such as Alex Chilton has to reach deep, not able to rely on his standard set, that’s when the magic happens. When he performs “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” the great Nina Simone song from her first album Little Girl Blue, perhaps the song selection gives you pause — its bouncy piano style isn’t a natural for solo guitar, but Chilton rises to the occasion in fine voice. But what comes after the second verse is why people call him a genius. I’ve probably heard the original of this song a thousand times, always astounded by Simone’s brilliant piano skills. So when Chilton gets to the point in the song where Nina stopped singing and played a brief solo, he re-creates the solo flawlessly — on acoustic guitar. It is truly jaw-dropping, not only because he could play it, but because it shows that like many guitarists, he learned it off of a record, which, in the days before YouTube and tab, was a painful, slow process that really developed a player’s ears. To do it for a jazz piano solo, well, that’s amazing.

This record is a fine addition to the Chilton canon, and we’re thankful that mega-fan Jeff Vargon had a cassette tape recorder that night. The song selection ranges from before Alex was born (“Someone to Watch Over Me” from Gershwin) to contemporaries such as Joni Mitchell (“A Case of You”) and Loudon Wainwright (“Motel Blues”), and every song is a testament to his taste, talent, and off-the-cuff skill. Electricity by Candlelight shows us Alex Chilton’s genius, and gives a somber reminder that he’s no longer with us.

Dammit.

Bar/None

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