A sudden power outage has plunged New York’s Knitting Factory into total darkness. Instead of using the electrical failure as an excuse to flee the stage, Alex Chilton accepts the loan of an acoustic guitar and heeds requests from the 80 or so people in the audience — “Let’s Get Lost,” “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and “Surfer Girl” among them. At this urban campfire sing-along — with votive candles rather than kindling — Chilton banters merrily with his fellow music lovers, surprising even hardcore fans with his diverse selections. I was there that night, and hearing myself call out for “Waltz Across Texas” and “My Funny Valentine” brings back a flood of memories of the numerous Chilton concerts (including those with his former bands Big Star and the Box Tops) I witnessed beginning in 1985. This one, on February 13, 1997, is at the top of my list — and the fact that it was documented by a hand-held tape recorder makes it even more special.
With drummer Richard Dworkin eventually joining the unamplified Chilton on snare and brushes, the sound mix is miraculously good on Electricity by Candlelight. Chilton’s choices exemplify the late singer-songwriter’s five-decade musical journey: Loudon Wainwright III’s “Motel Blues,” which he learned in 1970 while playing Village folk clubs before joining Big Star; a Beach Boys trilogy, including Brian Wilson’s wacky “Solar System” (the Box Tops often toured with the Beach Boys in the ’60s); various jazz standards; and several obscure country songs. Growing up in Memphis the son of a jazzman, Chilton was first inspired by Chet Baker and country music. He frequently tuned in to the Grand Ole Opry and his C&W knowledge was deep, from the obscure “Last Bouquet” by Clyde Owens and his Midnight Ramblers to Bill Monroe’s tragic “Footprints in the Snow” to former convict Glen Sherley’s come-on “Step Right This Way.” Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and Tammy Wynette are also in the mix. Adding to the hootenanny vibe, Chilton enlists audience whistlers (“Girl from Ipanema”), “Raelettes” (an uncredited female vocalist carries “Someone to Watch Over Me”) and help on lyrics (Joni Mitchell’s “Case of You”). (Backup vocals are listed as “December Boys & September Gurls Choir.”) As he seeks “that magic folk song that shuts this thing down,” he finally settles on Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer” — sung with all the earnestness Chilton could muster. A bonus track is Chilton’s masterful version of a 1981 country hit, Johnny Lee’s “Bet Your Heart on Me,” originally included on the impossible-to-find anthology, Love Is My Only Crime.