When I wrote an appreciation of Al Stewart last year for this blog, I kicked it off with the words “I’m not going to be able to write a live review of him”, since I was convinced I was never going to see him on a stage again in my lifetime. Which just goes to show how wrong I can be, since nine months later I was at the Royal Albert Hall in London to see Stewart perform his “classic albums” Past, Present and Future (one of my top three favourite albums of all time) and Year of the Cat. As it happened I had other business in England at the time as well, but even if I hadn’t, I would almost certainly have made the trip anyway.
I said pretty much all I have to say about Past, Present and Future in that earlier piece, so I refer anyone who is interested there for an idea of why it was so important for me to attend this concert. As for Year of the Cat, by some distance Stewart’s most popular and enduring album, it’s a record that I’ve always greatly admired without ever feeling that it reached the heights of PP&F or 1975’s exquisite Modern Times. Still, there was enough of Stewart’s songwriting genius in evidence on YotC to make the second half of this show very nearly as essential as the first.
The Royal Albert Hall is the kind of venue that makes you contemplate the history of all the music that has previously been heard there, one of the few concert halls that is as much a part of the occasion as the artist you’re there to see. It was inevitable, therefore, that while waiting for Stewart to come on and taking in the splendour of my surroundings, I tried to remember all the previous times I had been there. I’m pretty sure the first was Suzanne Vega in 1987, followed not long after by Leonard Cohen in both 1988 and 1993 (I’m proud to say that I saw Cohen well before he started playing his London shows at the O2 Arena). After that things get a little fuzzy, although I certainly saw shows by the Cowboy Junkies, Tindersticks and Bruce Springsteen solo there at some point, not to mention the late John Tavener at a Prom sometime in the 1990s (nabbing his autograph as he swept up the steps to the Albert Hall from the nearby Royal College of Music before the show). Thinking back, the last time I was there may well have been for Spiritualized’s transcendent appearance in 1997. Al Stewart may not have reached quite the ecstatic heights of that event, but he was nevertheless able to cast some magic of his own with his magnificently stirring and eloquent folk rock.
In no small part this was due to the fact that he had brought a full band with him, including such distinguished Stewart alumni as electric guitarist Tim Renwick and keyboardist, occasional acoustic guitarist and musical director Peter White. Renwick in particular was a revelation, his nimble electric solos merging with the acoustic frontline of Dave Nachmanoff and Stewart himself in a definitive illustration of folk rock par excellence. With the guitars bolstered by White’s plangent keyboards and Marc Macisso’s vibrant sax and harmonica, plus bass, drums and backing vocalists, this immaculate group brought glowing life to Stewart’s long, intricate meditations on time, history and man’s place within them.
Stewart is a thoroughly likeable, engaging frontman, all too willing to spin anecdotes that flesh out the personal and historical background to his songs. It’s only when he sings, though, that these songs grip you with their dramatic and expressive flights of lyrical invention. Forty years after he wrote them, he may regret giving them quite as many words as he did, since he good-naturedly complains about how difficult it is to remember some of the lyrics. Yet his lovely voice catches a note of unexpressed yearning that reverberates through all the years, decades and centuries from which his characters emerge. It’s this vivid, hard-edged nostalgia that elevates Stewart’s songs above the realm of the commonplace and propels them towards the status of great popular art.