I saw Al Stewart on Friday for the fourth time, though the first in thirty-one years. It's funny how some people expect artists to remain frozen in time. At the merchandise stand before the concert started, I overheard a lady being told that one of the CDs available was a live recording from earlier in the current tour. She looked at the track listing and said in a disappointed tone "Does that mean he won't be doing Nostradamus
tonight?" For the benefit of those of you who haven't been Al Stewart fans since the late sixties, Nostradamus
was the main (though not IMHO the best) track on his 1973 album Past Present and Future
. (Incidentally, Iain Banks agrees with me: he has the main character in The Bridge
say that Roads To Moscow
from that album moved him to tears while Nostradamus
just irritated him!). I saw Al do it live shortly before the album came out, and when I last saw him on the Modern Times
tour in 1975, he'd already dropped it from his playlist.
Anyway, Al Stewart. Now older, less (and greyer) hair, but still recognisably the same guy. The first twice I saw him he was solo: once supporting the Young Tradition and (I think?) Tom Rush, when he opened with Paul Simon's Sparrow
, did a couple of guitar instrumentals and only one song of his own (The Ballad Of Mary Foster
, so good value for money); next time sharing a bill with Planxty and doing a mix of stuff including some songs from P P & F
. (He was clearly either slightly stoned or very whimsical - neither could be ruled out, as he is a big fan of Edward Lear and Mervyn Peake - as when he reached the line in Swiss Cottage Manoeuvres
"She had eyes like a poet and hair like a rainbow" he sang "...and hair like a tea-tray"; stopped, and said apologetically that he just had an urge to sing that; then restarted and did the song straight. The audience loved it. Third time I saw him, he had a band, and they were great. I remembered Al as a great performer, however you cut it, and the last time I'd seen him he'd had some of his strongest material to work with (even though his biggest hits were still a year or two ahead of him).
Anyway, Friday. This time he had two other guys with him: David Nachmanoff on guitar, and Marc Macisso on percussion, sax, flute and harmonica. Between then they created the illusion of reconstructing the sound of the original recordings of the songs, though of course they weren't (typically those had bands with six or seven members). You couldn't fault the choice of sidemen, though: they were superb. As indeed was Al, whose voice sounds little altered from those glory days of "Love Chronicles". A few notes were subtly shifted down an octave (notably in "Small Fruit Song", but the energy, enthusiasm and general vocal quality were all as good as ever, as were the introductions to the songs: witty and informative. Here's the playlist:House Of Clocks
On The Border
Night Train To Munich
Paint By Numbers
Roads To Moscow
Medley: Clifton In The Rain/Small Fruit Song
Soho (Needless To Say)
The Year Of The Cat
==Encores==Katherine Of Oregon
Joe The Georgian
While I'm sorry he didn't do The Coldest Winter In Memory (
hey, it's two decades more recent than Nostradamus!
), he did do Flying Sorcery
, Night Train to Munich
and Roads To Moscow
, all favourites. And it was great to hear him doing In Brooklyn
after all these years (from the same album as The Ballad Of Mary Foster
). The material spanned the whole of his career, though there were gaps here and there. He clearly does the stuff he still likes, and he clearly still likes it a lot. (On realising the Queens Hall was a converted church, he said they ought to do Gethsemane Again
, which is all about the commercialisation of religion; then he admitted he could no longer remember the words. However, a few years ago he did say he fancied revisiting the song with a band, so who knows?)
Plus, I got three albums of unreleased rarities from the fan club stall, with which they gave me a free CD and a book of photographs spanning Al's career.
Go and see him if you can catch him on the tour. He's excellent value, and whether or not you've heard any of his songs you're in for a treat. Plus, you have to love someone who wrote into his contract with a record company (Columbia, I think) that if he delivered the agreed number of albums on schedule he would get three cases of wine as a performance bonus. The company agreed, thinking maybe £10 a bottle. If they'd read the contract more carefully the cases were 1961 Pétrus, 1961 Chateau Palmer and (I think) 1961 Margaux, and cost them several thousand dollars.