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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

The Ballad of Big Star: Legacy Collects Live, Studio Recordings On New “Playlist”

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Big Star - PlaylistOn November 26, the Memphis boys of Big Star will be back “In the Street” – and on store shelves.  On that date, Magnolia Home Entertainment releases the acclaimed documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me on DVD and Blu-ray, and Sony’s Legacy Recordings unleashes Playlist: The Very Best of Big Star.  Reviewing Omnivore Recordings’ soundtrack to the film, we wrote, “Rare is the cult band that actually lives up to its legend.  Yet, with each listen – time after time, year after year – Big Star not only meets the hype, but surpasses it.  Chances are, if you know the music of Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens, you remember the first time you heard it.  You likely also remember the friend who first introduced you to the band, or how he or she told you about this great discovery with the hush-hush nature of a secret told in the deepest confidence.  Though the group is today spoken of with reverence in certain circles, no commercial breakthrough ever allowed the band to make its name a reality.  (In fact, the name Big Star derived from a supermarket!)  Frontman Alex Chilton’s closest turn as a ‘big star’ came in his youth, as he led The Box Tops through a series of hits including ‘The Letter’ and ‘Cry Like a Baby.’  So, beyond the ‘cult’ tag and the mystique, why are we still talking about Big Star, a band whose reputation is entirely based on three albums from 1972-1978 that almost nobody heard?”

After the jump: what’s on this new anthology?  Hit the jump for full details including the complete track listing and pre-order links! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

November 5, 2013 at 11:23

Release Round-Up: Week of October 8

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Tony Bennett - Live at the SaharaTony Bennett, Live At The Sahara: Las Vegas 1964 (RPM/Columbia/Legacy)

Previously exclusive to The Complete Collection box set, Bennett’s first headlining act in Sin City is now available for standalone purchase. (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

Electricity by Candlelight_ NYC 2_13_97Alex Chilton, Electricity by Candlelight: NYC 2/13/97 (Bar None)

The late Big Star frontman had a talent that not even a power outage at New York’s Knitting Factory could blot out, as this spontaneous, covers-heavy release showcases. (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

Kinks - Muswell Hillbillies DeluxeThe Kinks, Muswell Hillbillies: Deluxe Edition (Sanctuary)

The Kinks’ ninth album (and first originally recorded for RCA) gets a two-disc reissue worthy of any 20th century man you might know. (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

Barbra Streisand - Classic ChristmasAlabama/Johnny Cash/Neil Diamond/George Jones & Tammy Wynette/Gladys Knight & The Pips/Martina McBride/Barbra Streisand/Andy Williams, The Classic Christmas Album (Legacy)

Following the success of last year’s wave of mid-priced holiday compilations, another eight are coming to fill your stockings with Christmas cheer.

Alabama: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.
Johnny Cash: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.
Neil Diamond: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.
George Jones & Tammy Wynette: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.
Gladys Knight & The Pips: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.
Martina McBride: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.
Barbra Streisand: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.
Andy Williams: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.

CBGB SoundtrackVarious Artists, CBGB: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Omnivore)

This 20-track compilation for the new film about the legendary New York club features some of the biggest bands who played that stage, plus a recording by founder Hilly Krystal and a new version of Blondie’s “Sunday Girl.” (Rhino will distribute a digital version in the future with exclusive tracks.)

CD: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.
2LP: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.

Chilton Illuminates New York in Unearthed 1997 Show

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Yesterday marked the 10th anniversary of that famous blackout that hit New York and parts of the Eastern seaboard for much of the afternoon and evening. How ironic, then, that we turn your attention today toward the impending release of a previously-unreleased live concert from the late Alex Chilton, recorded under similar circumstances.

Electricity by Candlelight showcases an unbelievable set by the Big Star frontman on the floor of New York’s Knitting Factory on February 13, 1997. Chilton was in town for two performances at the venue; before his second set of the night, however, The Knitting Factory inexplicably lost power, and refunds were issued. But in an almost too-good-to-be-true twist, Chilton and touring drummer Richard Dworkin made their way to the floor. Chilton accepted a random concertgoer’s loan of an acoustic guitar, and played.

What happened next was more than a dozen ethereal covers, from Loudon Wainwright III (“Motel Blues”) to Joni Mitchell (“A Case of You”), standards including “The Girl from Ipanema,” “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “I Walk the Line” and “If I Had a Hammer.” In a brilliant hat tip to one of his most transcendent pop contemporaries, he also performed The Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Surfer Girl,” plus relative obscurity “Solar System,” from 1977’s Love You.

Recorded by a concert attendee, a Mr. Jeff Vargon (who also penned the set’s liner notes), Electricity by Candlelight certainly bears all the earmarks of a lo-fi personal recording. But, either by luck or by virtue of the unbelievable scene taking place, the audience is respectful of this up-close-and-personal set, allowing for the best possible presentation of Chilton’s strumming and that inimitable quavering voice. The disc also features a rare studio track, a cover of Johnny Lee’s country tune “You Can Bet Your Heart on Me,” from a European compilation released in 1993.

Electricity by Candlelight is available from Bar/None Records on October 8. Amazon links are not yet live, but a track list is below.

Electricity by Candlelight/NYC 2/13/97 (Bar/None BRN-CD-220, 2013)

  1. Last Bouquet
  2. Step Right This Way
  3. Let’s Get Lost
  4. D-I-V-O-R-C-E
  5. Raining in My Heart
  6. Lovesick Blues
  7. The Girl from Ipanema
  8. My Baby Just Cares for Me
  9. Motel Blues
  10. Someone to Watch Over Me
  11. Footprints in the Snow
  12. A Case of You
  13. Wouldn’t It Be Nice
  14. Surfer Girl
  15. Solar System
  16. I Walk the Line
  17. If I Had a Hammer
  18. You Can Bet Your Heart on Me

Tracks 1-17 recorded at The Knitting Factory, New York City – 2/13/1997
Track 18 released on Love is My Only Crime (Intercord/Veracity Musik IRS CD 986.966 (EU), 1993)

Written by Mike Duquette

August 15, 2013 at 15:15

Posted in Alex Chilton, News, Reissues

Review: Big Star, “Nothing Can Hurt Me: Original Soundtrack”

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Big Star - Nothing Can Hurt MeThe feature-length documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me opens today at New York’s IFC Center and on Friday at Los Angeles’ Nuart Theatre.  In conjunction with its release, Omnivore Recordings has recently unveiled a soundtrack album collecting 21 previously unissued songs from the legendary Memphis band.

Rare is the cult band that actually lives up to its legend.  Yet, with each listen – time after time, year after year – Big Star not only meets the hype, but surpasses it.  Chances are, if you know the music of Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens, you remember the first time you heard it.  You likely also remember the friend who first introduced you to the band, or how he or she told you about this great discovery with the hush-hush nature of a secret told in the deepest confidence.  Though the group is today spoken of with reverence in certain circles, no commercial breakthrough ever allowed the band to make its name a reality.  (In fact, the name Big Star derived from a supermarket!)  Frontman Alex Chilton’s closest turn as a “big star” came in his youth, as he led The Box Tops through a series of hits including “The Letter” and “Cry Like a Baby.”  So, beyond the “cult” tag and the mystique, why are we still talking about Big Star, a band whose reputation is entirely based on three albums from 1972-1978 that almost nobody heard?  The ample proof can be heard on Omnivore Recordings’ new release entitled Nothing Can Hurt Me.  The 21-track anthology is, in actuality, the Original Soundtrack to Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori’s new documentary, but it’s also a concise and potent introduction to the band’s unforgettable music.

Hit the jump to dive in! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

July 3, 2013 at 10:49

In The Street, Again: Big Star’s “Nothing Can Hurt Me” Arrives On CD, LP and Digitally

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Big Star - Nothing Can Hurt MeWhen Magnolia Pictures releases the documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me to cinemas, On Demand and iTunes on July 3, it will be the culmination of a years-in-the-making adventure to bring the story of Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel’s band to the big screen.  The commercial impact of Big Star was as minimal as its influence over an entire generation of musicians was enormous, but the legacy of the power pop heroes still blazes brightly today.  Following the 2009 release of Rhino’s definitive box set Keep an Eye on the Sky, it would have been easy to believe that the last word on Big Star had been written.  After all, the 4-CD box set towered over a catalogue that originally only consisted of three studio albums.  But Omnivore Recordings has augmented that small but significant group of recordings with stellar releases like the 2011 Record Store Day edition of the Third [Test Pressing Edition] and Alex Chilton’s Free Again: The “1970” Sessions in January 2012.  Now, following a limited edition colored vinyl release for Record Store Day, Omnivore has announced the release of the soundtrack to Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me for June 25.

The 2012 SXSW Film Festival selection tells the story of the ultimate cult band, chronicling Alex Chilton’s ascent to fame as lead singer of The Box Tops through the recording of Big Star’s three albums, to the 1978 death of Chilton’s collaborator Chris Bell.  Its  landmark soundtrack features a lineup of 21 tracks.  These unheard versions of classic Big Star songs – vintage unissued mixes, alternate takes, demos, and new mixes created specifically for the film – plus one “fly-on the-wall” track of studio chatter add up to a treasure trove for fans and collectors alike. The project was overseen by the documentary’s executive producer, John Fry, at the legendary Ardent Studios in Memphis.  Nothing Can Hurt Me will be available on single-disc CD, double-LP vinyl in a gatefold sleeve with a download card included, and digitally.

Hit the jump for more details including the full track listings and pre-order links! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

May 2, 2013 at 13:52

Omnivore Reveals Record Store Day Exclusives from Big Star, Waylon, Old 97’s, Three Hits

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With Record Store Day just a little over three weeks away, Omnivore Recordings has unveiled an eclectic slate of three vinyl platters suiting the label’s deliciously omnivorous tastes.  Two artists are familiar to fans of the label, while the third makes an Omnivore debut.  All of the titles, of course, will be offered via your local brick-and-mortar independent music retailer on Saturday, April 20 to mark the sixth annual event.

Without further ado…hit the jump to dive into tasty treats from Big Star, The Old 97’s with special guest Waylon Jennings, and North Carolina’s own Three Hits! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

March 28, 2013 at 09:59

The Year in Reissues: The 2012 Gold Bonus Disc Awards

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Gold CDWow!  Was it just over a year ago when a rather dubious report began circulating (that, shockingly, was picked up by many otherwise-reputable publications) that proclaimed the death of the CD was secretly scheduled by the major labels for 2012?  Well, 2012 has come and (almost) gone, and it might have been the most super-sized year in recent memory for reissues, deluxe and otherwise, from labels new and old.  Here at the Second Disc, we consider our annual Gold Bonus Disc Awards a companion piece to Mike’s own round-up over at Popdose, and we endeavor to recognize as many of the year’s most amazing reissues as possible – over 80 worthy, unique titles.  We also hope to celebrate those labels, producers and artists who have raised the bar for great music throughout 2012. As we’re literally deluged with news around these parts, these ladies and gentlemen prove, week after week, the strength and health of the catalogue corner of the music world.  We dedicate The Gold Bonus Disc Awards to them, and to you, the readers.  After all, your interest is ultimately what keeps great music of the past alive and well.

With that in mind, don’t forget to share your own thoughts and comments below. What made your must-have list in 2012? Without further ado, let’s celebrate 2012′s best of the best. Welcome to the Gold Bonus Disc Awards!

Which releases take home the gold this year? Hit the jump below to find out! Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Alex Chilton, “Free Again: The 1970 Sessions”

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What makes a cult hero most?  Alex Chilton ascended to that lofty rank as the leader of Big Star, a band whose negligible commercial impact is only matched by its considerable influence over an entire generation of musicians.  When Chilton’s Paul McCartney met Chris Bell’s John Lennon (or vice versa?), they formed a brief but potent team as singers and songwriters.  What resulted was the exuberant power pop of the optimistically-titled No. 1 Record as recorded by Big Star: Chilton, Bell, Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel.  Bell departed after that one, shining album, having successfully synthesized the sounds of London, Memphis and Los Angeles into something shimmering and original.  Big Star itself imploded after just two more increasingly off-center LPs, and Chilton seemed to retreat, off to battle his personal demons.  Not one of the group’s three records had troubled the charts, quite a comedown for the man who had taught us how to “Cry Like a Baby” and whose baby wrote him “The Letter.”

Alex Chilton, who died in 2010, lived long enough to see his work reappraised by a new generation.  The Replacements name-checked him in song, and the Big Star catalogue appeared on CD from Fantasy, making it a bit easier for the albums to be circulated around college campuses everywhere: “Hey, have you heard this Big Star?”  That ‘70s Show selected a Big Star tune as its theme.  Chilton even re-formed the band in 1993.  As so often happens, the faithful became curious about Chilton’s past.  The Box Tops LPs were reissued on CD by Sundazed.  And in 1996, a missing link between The Box Tops and Big Star arrived in the form of 1970, on the Ardent label.  This compilation premiered an entire album’s worth of unheard compositions by the Box Tops’ moonlighting singer, in sessions at the future birthplace of Big Star, Ardent Studios.  1970 is the foundation of the latest release from Omnivore Recordings and Ace Records (OVCD-13).  Free Again: The “1970” Sessions expands that long out-of-print album from 13 tracks to 20, dramatically resequences it, and makes a strong case that Alex Chilton’s embryonic songwriting talents were as prodigious as his deeply soulful vocals.  (Free Again is also available as a 12-track LP, and the first 1,500 copies of that LP have been pressed on clear vinyl.)

Hit the jump to explore the 20 tracks found on Free Again! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

January 11, 2012 at 09:51

Release Round-Up: Week of January 10

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A slow week, but enough substantial releases to make this our first Round-Up of 2012!

Alex Chilton, Free Again: The 1970 Sessions (Omnivore Recordings)

After The Box Tops, before Big Star, the late, great Chilton finds his voice as a writer. A review from Joe is forthcoming!

Jellyfish, Bellybutton / Spilt Milk (Omnivore Recordings)

Brand-new vinyl remasters of the only two albums by the perennially underrated power pop band.

Andy Gibb, Greatest Hits / Iron Butterfly, Evolution: The Best of Iron Butterfly (Rhino Flashback)

From Rhino’s budget arm, two great, long-out-of-print compilations get their due on CD! (Check back very soon for a full breakdown from Joe!)

Various artists, ICON (UMe)

Another round of ’em.

Written by Mike Duquette

January 10, 2012 at 09:31