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.
The venue canceled the rest of the show and offered refunds, and Chilton could have packed up and left. Instead, in a display of generosity, he borrowed an acoustic guitar and performed an hour-long set on the floor of the club, illuminated only by a handful of candles and recorded by a fan who happened to have a tape recorder with him. Chilton steered clear of Big Star songs, and even his solo catalog, and while that might seem disappointing on the face of it, the 17 songs (plus a studio bonus track) here offer a glimpse at the inner workings of the inspiration behind an inspiration.
Between swapping quips with the crowd, Chilton mined his musical influences, including a fair number of classic country songs: he warbled almost off-handedly through “Lovesick Blues,” offered a wry take on “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” that set the crowd to laughing and nodded respectfully at Memphis music history with a sharp version of Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line,” Chilton’s wistful tenor floating where Cash’s sturdy baritone trudged.
Chilton’s set list also showed his affinity for a broad spectrum of pop, with a rendition of “Girl From Ipanema” that somehow always comes as a surprise and a trio of Brian Wilson songs that included affecting sing-alongs on “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Surfer Girl.” Nestled among the country and pop tunes were a handful of folk songs, including Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” and Peter Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer,” which closed the show. Seeger’s everyman anthem was a fitting way to end: there was Chilton, literally surrounded by his audience, sharing a song that emphasizes an all-for-one ideal in a place where, even for just an hour with the lights off, everyone was in it together. That’s magical indeed.