Over the years I’ve met a few people who so dislike Al Stewart, the mere mention of his name leads to something akin to a gag reflex. During freshman year in college, my old friend Tom, upon hearing that I owned a greatest hits CD of said Stewart, grimaced as if he’d just sampled a plate of cow dung. Nevertheless, I continued to be a casual fan of Stewart, having purchased four of his records on vinyl – all of them either used or cutouts (remember those?) – but not going beyond 24 Carrots. When Russians & Americans came out in 1984, I was tempted to take the plunge with my hard-earned money from Kolb’s Garden Center, but instead opted for Elton John’s Breaking Hearts.
Seven years later, when I learned that Stewart was playing not three blocks away from my apartment at a tiny stage on Cathedral Square in Milwaukee on a sunny afternoon – not exactly the venue or the time of a major rock star – I figured, what the hell. I walked alone, took a seat, and Stewart took the stage with accompanying musician Peter White and played a great set in front of a sparse crowd, but what stuck with me most were the haunting images of a then-unreleased song called “Trains,” another of Stewart’s history lessons, culminating in the tragic turns that locomotives took in the carrying out of Nazi orders during the Holocaust.
Last night, I was once again graced with a fine concert by Stewart, this time at the City Winery in Chicago, the first of two nights with a particular album highlighted. I opted to see The Year of the Cat from 1976 rather than Past, Present and Future from three years prior. What can I say? My fandom of Stewart’s catalog only goes so deep, but it was great to hear the man once again after twenty-seven years.
Opening with three tracks (“Sirens of Titan,” “Antarctica,” and “Time Passages”) prior to delving into the evening’s featured album, 72-year-old Stewart’s voice sounded rather thin, but since he never had a powerhouse voice to begin with, all that was truly missed was some of the high range, and he had to weave in alternative melodies on “Time Passages” and many of the songs from Year of the Cat. Dressed in dress slacks and long-sleeve button-down shirt, he looked more like a banker on lunch-break than an artist, but Stewart wasn’t even hip in the 1970s, so what would one expect when he finally reached his 70s?
What Stewart lacked in singing voice he made up for in telling stories, offering several insights between songs that kept the audience (my son may have won the prize for youngest attendee) engaged and – often – laughing. Stewart mentioned that for a folk-rock historian, having a hit was not enviable, and so he began Year of the Cat with a song about a naval battle in 1591 (“Lord Grenville”) followed by another history lesson with “On the Border.” Alas, the second song was a hit, as was the album’s title track, perhaps making Stewart very uncool among his folk-rock brethren. He also told a story of how he began to play the guitar in the middle of nowhere, England, only to eventually find another guitarist nearby named Robert Fripp, the eventual virtuoso of King Crimson fame. Not a bad find, even if Stewart ultimately rebuffed Fripp’s insistence on learning jazz chords. Introducing the song “Broadway Hotel,” Stewart explained that the song was about a seduction at a hotel in Portland, Oregon. He waited a beat, then added: “I highly recommend it.”
Joined on-stage was Stewart’s opening and accompanying band, Chicago’s very own Empty Pockets, a stellar act whose six-song opening set of tight harmonies and soulful melodies fit well into the evening’s performances. The standout for me was guitarist Josh Solomon, who nailed every part required of Stewart’s catalogue and then some, including a fine electric piano solo that surpassed anything I could have performed. (I hate it when guitarists can also play keys better than me!) Also on-stage was multi-instrumentalist Marc Macisso, who hammed it up for the appreciative audience, particularly during the signature sax solos of “Time Passages” and “Year of the Cat.”
Gone are the days when a melodic history lesson could become a radio hit, but for one night in Chicago, history was cool again. I had asked several people to joined me for the evening, but none took the bait, and my son, who knew little of Stewart prior to the concert, said afterwards, “I’m glad your friends said no to the show.” So there you are, Al. You’ve earned the appreciation of a 16-year-old. Not a bad feat for an aging rocker.