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Archive for November 6th, 2013

Something to Remember: How Alex Chilton (and Jeff Vargon) Generated “Electricity by Candlelight”

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Electricity by Candlelight_ NYC 2_13_97The recent release of Alex Chilton’s Electricity by Candlelight on Bar/None Records turns a “you had to be there” moment into a “you are there moment.” The late, great singer/songwriter and Big Star frontman took a major setback – a sudden power outage between two sets at New York City’s Knitting Factory in 1997 – and spun it into a most magical listening experience: Chilton picked up an acoustic guitar and regaled a small audience with a clutch of covers, from standards (“My Baby Just Cares for Me,” “Someone to Watch Over Me”) to country classics (“D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” “I Walk the Line”) to the kind of brilliant pop songs he was more than capable of creating (a sublime three song run through the ends of Brian Wilson’s Beach Boys songbook, from “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” to “Surfer Girl” to the obscure “Solar System” off 1977’s Love You).

What brings this performance out of the realm of mystical recollection and into tangible experience is one lucky fan, Jeff Vargon, who attended Chilton’s show with his trusty recorder and captured an enchanting moment (“something I never would’ve expected”) from a career chock full of them. Not long after the release and enthusiastic reception to Electricity by Candlelight last month (“It’s good to see people getting what this show is about,” Vargon enthused), I had the pleasure of speaking to Jeff about his history with Chilton and what it was like in the presence of pure musical magic.

Where does your own history with Alex Chilton’s work begin? What was it about him that drew you to him?

I’ve been a Chilton fan since the early ’90s, and I’d liked power pop even before that – The Raspberries, Badfinger – but a friend of mine turned me on to Big Star in ’93, and I’d seen Alex live in 1994 or early ’95. This project in particular – at the time I was there, I knew something exceptional was happening. But the reaction out there surprised me – you might not expect something like this to get such positive feedback. But Alex Chilton had a fan base that was very unique.

When he was alive, his performances were very eclectic and unpredictable. There were certain songs he’d play if he was putting on his “lounge act,” so to speak. That photo that’s circulating with this release, that was from his first set that night, and he’s got on this shiny jacket and a nice shirt. By the second set, the one that’s on here, he had just a t-shirt on, strumming in front of a crowd by candlelight.

Alex was a musician – not to be cliched, but he did it his way. He had a No. 1 hit at 16, and could’ve kept going that route. Look at Michael Jackson – how he’d faded, spiraled and became a disaster. Alex, on the other hand, was someone who basically did his own thing, went out there and played gigs. He was a human being when you met him or talked to him, and he had bad days and good days. One night, I saw him at a Box Tops gig, and he was out on the street, and I’d said it was a great show. He replied, “No interviews, no interviews.” Now, I’d met him a few times before that, though I’m not certain he recognized me. It was one of those nights for him. But when he played, he always do what he wanted to do, not what corporate America was pushing down anyone’s throat.

Set the scene of what it was like to be at this show for us.

It was Valentine’s Eve, and I’d bought tickets for both sets. If he was playing over a few nights, I’d try to catch him once, but since it was one night, I just bought them both. So he played his electric set without a hitch, and I’d stood up front, took pictures and recorded him – I’ve been recording since my first Chilton gig. There was this break between sets, and people were milling about while Alex had gone upstairs to talk to a few friends. Just as they were setting up for the second set, the lights went out. Most people started booing, and the bulk of the group started to walk out. But Alex being Alex, he walked downstairs to see what was happening, and I decided to sit there and wait. All of a sudden, I hear this guitar strumming and he’s singing “Volare.” As soon as I heard it, I hit “record” and got as close as possible. People were still leaving at this point, but there were others starting to drift in and circle around him. And he just started playing. Eventually, people bought up a few candles, because it was dark where he was standing. As he continued to play, he warmed up even more to the crowd – you can hear on the recording that everyone there wanted to be there.

He played a long set, over an hour. There were songs we actually cut from the performance – the idea was we’d get out there songs he’d never recorded or performed regularly.

AlexWhat did you use to record the show?

Basically, I had a Sony stereo Walkman recorder with an external microphone I’d clipped to my shirt. It was funny, the entire recording I was paranoid that he’d spot the mic. I was close enough to him that he could’ve seen it had he looked – there was actually one point where he’s strumming and singing, and he stops, kind of smiles wryly and looks at me. And I figured, “Oh, I’m busted – he saw the mic and it’s over.” But it wasn’t.

It was a very basic setup. I was behind a lady directly in front of him – I didn’t want to be right in front.

When or how did this become an official Alex Chilton project?

I’d gone to the City Winery tribute in New York. Bill Cunningham, Gary Talley, Jody Stephens, Alex’s widow Laura – they were all there. And I’d put together packages ahead of time based on who played with him. One of the discs I’d put together was the acoustic CD, which I’d actually given to Alex back in 1998. It’s still my favorite personal recording – and Laura really enjoyed it. That’s what gave me the impetus to get this out there.

What are the most memorable moments of this show for you?

From what I recall, everything was very spur of the moment. He was kind of shooting from the hip – there was nothing he wouldn’t play, other than his own music. And a few of these songs were just called out, like “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.” So Alex’s musical knowledge was phenomenal – almost limitless, if you think about it. Nothing was set in stone for any of this. Even those three Beach Boys tunes – I wasn’t aware that “Universe” even was a Beach Boys tune at the time. It was one of those things that just kept getting better as it went on, and nobody wanted it to end.

[But] “Surfer Girl,” for me, would be the song. He did a demo of that which ended up on a bootleg album, Beale Street Green, and it had such a 1970s feel, although it’s a ’60s tune. The ’70s were a point in history where, at the time you might not have appreciated what was going on, but looking back – especially in today’s world – it was a paradise.

I’m not going to live forever, but as long as I live, this is something to remember. It’s an example of beauty – it captures a moment where there is good in the universe, and everyone comes together, regardless of our differences, in one place and time to experience something great.

You can order Electricity by Candlelight on Amazon U.S. and Amazon U.K.!

Written by Mike Duquette

November 6, 2013 at 11:56

Review: Bob Dylan, “The Complete Album Collection Volume One”

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Dylan Complete 1

Tucked away on Bob Dylan’s 23rd studio album Empire Burlesque, the troubadour sings simply but sternly, “Trust yourself/Trust yourself to do the things that only you know best/Trust yourself/Trust yourself to do what’s right and not be second-guessed…”  Dylan had trusted himself since he first arrived on the scene in 1962, engaging in a series of transformations that enthralled, angered, transfixed and bewildered those that followed his career – from folk troubadour to electric rocker to cowboy crooner to confessional singer-songwriter to born-again song-slinger to distracted artist to grand old man and living legend.  The times they were a-changin’, and Bob Dylan was a-changin’ with them.  He famously titled his fourth album Another Side of Bob Dylan – but the hefty new box set from Columbia Records and Legacy Recordings The Complete Album Collection Volume One (88691 92431 25 1) offers practically every side of Bob Dylan…all save the private one, which he has worked valiantly to protect and preserve over 50+ years in the public eye.

The term “Dylanologist” was coined by one A.J. Weberman.  His confrontations with the artist whose work he closely parsed for deeper meaning have achieved now-legendary status.  But with the release of this career-spanning 47-disc box set, all who listen can become Dylanologists.  Dylan struggled with the tag of “the voice of a generation,” one which critics and fans alike were all too eager to bestow upon him after he spoke with a wisdom far beyond his years on such songs as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Masters of War” and “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.”  Of course, in some respects, it was accurate.  Though he wasn’t the first lyricist to push the envelope on subject matter – theatrical lyricists did it with regularity – Dylan played a major role in freeing popular song from the conventions of moon-june-spoon love songs.  One expects that he would openly credit the likes of E.Y. Harburg and Johnny Mercer from the Broadway-pop tradition as well as Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Pete Seeger from the folk landscape in shaping his craft.  Yet significantly, his early emphasis on impressionistic, oblique and poetic lyrics was a major deviation from folk, blues, country, Broadway or Tin Pan Alley traditions.  And though Dylan was far from the first singer to pick up an instrument and sing, his tremendous success did kick a door wide open.  He empowered every kid without the vocal prowess of a Frank Sinatra or even an Elvis Presley to grab a guitar and a notebook, and give voice to the thoughts, desires and yearnings of their age group.  Dylan’s ascendance dovetailed with the rise of youth culture – and the power of youth to influence spending – via rock-and-roll.  He was initially a folk singer with a rock-and-roll heart, then a rock-and-roller with a folk heart, always with the empathy of the blues running through his veins.

Yet, it’s important to remember that the man who wrote “Like a Rolling Stone” also wrote “Wiggle Wiggle.”  The same Bob Dylan who offered the world his ravishingly esoteric “Visions of Johanna” also tapped into the pop zeitgeist providing accessible hit songs for The Byrds, The Turtles, and Manfred Mann.  He even co-wrote songs with Carole Bayer Sager (“That’s What Friends Are For,” “A Groovy Kind of Love”) and Michael Bolton.  Journalists will no doubt continue to parse Dylan’s voluminous output for meanings both hidden and obvious, but the real truths about Bob Dylan are present in his music, and those truths resonate differently to each person who listens.

There are few artists whose entire (or near-entire) catalogue can truly justify the existence of a set such as The Complete Album Collection Volume One; Legacy has previously and rightfully bestowed the honor upon such artists as Miles Davis, Tony Bennett, Johnny Cash, Harry Nilsson and Paul Simon.  Barbra Streisand seems a logical next candidate.  Like the catalogues of any of those colleagues, all of whom set a new standard or high watermark for popular music in their genre, Dylan’s output can more than withstand the scrutiny of the box set treatment.  Each and every disc – whether acclaimed or maligned – is an essential piece of the puzzle.

After the jump: what’s here?  What’s not here?  Is it really where it’s at? Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

November 6, 2013 at 10:32

Posted in Bob Dylan, Box Sets, News, Reviews

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