"Electricity by Candlelight" presents a rarely heard side of Alex Chilton.
In the New Orleans phase of Alex Chilton's career, he had got to a place where he could make music on his own terms. He still had a great ear for pop songs, but he preferred to play other people's than his own from Big Star. He clearly valued spontaneity and feeling, but not to the shambolic degree of Like Flies on Sherbert or Panther Burns' Behind the Magnolia Curtain, on which he played guitar. He seemed determined to defy expectations as much as possible, to chart his musical career even if it meant challenging the fans who loved him and his work.
He was playing in New York City in 1997 when the club experienced a blackout, and Electricity by Candlelight: NYC 2/13/97 (Bar None) is a recording of his impromptu second set, played on a borrowed acoustic guitar for the handful of fans who wouldn't leave, accompanied for part of the set by a drummer who's doing his best to get in the spirit of Chilton's performance.
The circumstances were tailor-made for him and his touch-and-go relationship with expectations. Covers of songs by Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Chet Baker, The Beach Boys and more came spontaneously - some he remembered, some ended prematurely. Since it was all off the cuff and lagniappe that night, no one could be anything but thrilled by the once-in-a-lifetime show. Perhaps as a result of that, Electricity by Candlelight presents the happiest Alex Chilton I can remember onstage.
One thing that remained consistent with other shows was his preference not to play requests. He quickly, offhandedly dismisses all requests for Big Star songs; the closest he gets to Big Star is Loudon Wainwright III's "Motel Blues," which the band used to cover. He also ignores the call for What's Your Sign," a Danny Pearson cover that was a staple of his sets at the time.
Individual tracks have their charms, particularly "Lovesick Blues," when the audience tries to yodel along. But Electricity by Candlelight is a document of a moment more than a collection of songs, and its pleasures are probably hard to hear for those with little history with Chilton. For those who have invested time, identity, and emotional energy in his career, it's a sweet moment, one of the few times I've heard him seem lighthearted.