Alex Chilton, who passed away in 2010, was that rare artist who reinvented himself over and over again, often abandoning earlier successful formulas. He ran the gamut: working in many genres including the Memphis blue-eyed soul of the Box Tops (singing the number one hit “The Letter” at age 16) the Beatles-meets-Beale Street-high harmony of Big Star (three classic cult albums) a stint as a ’77 punk provocateur at CBGBs and a co-conspirator in the mutant Memphis art rock of Panther Burns.
In the early 1980s Chilton escaped his hometown and settled in New Orleans to recuperate from years of hard living. There he soaked up the music around him and developed a stripped down musical style and a sardonic persona. Instead of playing his greatest hits he played songs that spoke to him personally; lost obscure soul and blues tunes, jazz standards and rockabilly.
After younger musicians like REM and the Replacements began singing his praises to a new generation he put together a pair of touring outfits, one in the ’80s made up of Rene Coman and Doug Garrison and another group in the ’90s with childhood friend Ron Easley and Richard Dworkin. It was the latter group Alex was playing with when the lights went out. Ron hung out in the balcony and snapped some pictures while Richard eventually set up a snare and played along.
Electricity By Candlelight (released October 8, 2013).
On the night of February 13, 1997, Alex Chilton and his band were getting ready to play their second set of the night at the Knitting Factory in New York City when the lights went out. What happened was this album, a spontaneous off-the-cuff performance by Alex on a borrowed acoustic guitar with his drummer Richard Dworkin sitting in for half the set. It’s Alex Chilton thinking on his feet, totally in the moment, bouncing songs and ideas off the folks that stuck around for a real, one-of-a-kind exchange.
Fortunately long-time Chilton fan Jeffrey Vargon was there at the Knitting Factory with a tape recorder. This set was released by venerable indie label Bar/None as Electricity by Candlelight on October 8. Vargon’s remembrance of the night is included as liner notes with the album package. This recording is taken from the original source tape.
Anyone who ever saw Alex over the years will recognize the artist who always did it his way. This is as close and personal as it gets. Much of the material he never played before or after; a lot of country, some Beach Boys and a few songs he may not have played until that very moment. Keeping with the country flavor is a rare studio recording of Alex doing “Bet Your Heart On Me,” a 1981 country hit by Johnny Lee. Chilton’s version originally appeared on a compilation called Love is My Only Crime and is added as a bonus on the CD.
Electricity By Candlelight adds something to the Chilton canon, the sound of the man himself unencumbered by electronics or amplification getting down and thinking off the top of his head, searching for that perfect folk song that can bring it all to a close. He never finds it but he takes those that stuck around that night on a musical joy ride rolling through decades of song.
Set (released February 2, 2000).
In February 1999, the often elusive Alex Chilton was in New York City for a couple of gigs at the late, great East Village dive Coney Island High, with bassist Ron Easley and drummer Richard Dworkin. The trio had enough of a groove on playing mostly vintage soul tunes that they went into a Manhattan recording studio, Sear Sound, and kept the music rolling. In a single night, they cut nineteen cover tunes, and Alex produced the session himself. That sort of approach was common in the studios of Memphis, Tennessee and Muscle Shoals, Alabama during the classic era of sixties soul, though this think-on-your-feet, overdub-free style is an anomaly today. For the Memphis born-and-bred Alex, that’s the way he always liked it.
Alex and his cohorts had a list of songs for Set, based on what they’d been cooking up on stage, but, as Alex put it, “we thought of a few more once we got there.”
As he explained to a British reporter, “I had probably ten or twelve in mind when we went into the studio. As the evening wore on, band members would suggest tunes to do, and we’d do them. I think we only did more than one take of two or three of the songs we did, and I don’t think we used any second takes on the album. There are all different approaches to doing things. Over the years, I’ve come to think spontaneity and doing things live as much as possible is worth something. Somehow, when you layer things by overdubbing them, that seems to lose an element of spontaneity and life that’s very important.”
The material on Set ranges from the modern to the classic, the playful to the sexy. It, stays in an R&B groove, save for a trio of jazzy numbers (“April In Paris,” “There Will Never Be Another You,” “Shiny Stockings”) and a country tune from the even more elusive Gary Stewart (“Single Again”). What links the lineup is that all these tunes are part of Alex’s personal hit parade. “I know a few scholars of old R&B,” he explains, “they play things for me that get me going. Plus I remember things from my teenage years, stuff that was even obscure then.”
Even in this era of multitasking, few, if any, pop artists can lay claim to the disparate, multi-generational audience Alex maintained with his various, ongoing combos. But Set is perhaps the closest to the “real” Alex—melding memories of the music that inspired him as a teenager with the sweet soul sounds you can still find today if, like Alex, you know where to look.
“I’m in love with that song,“ was how Paul Westerberg of the Replacements put it in his heartfelt homage to Big Star, “Alex Chilton.” Alex himself offered the same sentiment on Set, his off-the-cuff tribute to the timeless southern soul music he deeply admires.