Al Stewart, London Royal Albert Hall, 22 May 2015

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.


I felt like making a website where I could put all the things I’ve written about music in one place. So here it is.

Most of the album reviews I’ve written (mostly for The Sound Projector) are on the site. There’s also previews (not much use, I know) of past live concerts in Vienna, taken from my monthly column for Ether, live reviews and a few letters to the press.

By the way, don’t expect too many updates to this site. I’m not going to be posting album reviews here regularly. The site is more like an archive, really. Still, I hope you find something of interest. Let me know what you think, please.

Carla Bruni, Quelqu’un ma dit

I read today – OK, I’m slow on the uptake – that the French singer Carla Bruni has finally married President Sarkozy after a short romance. With this news, her public profile continues to increase. She is someone I’ve admired for several years; I went to Paris in July 2003, trying to get my head straight after the death of my dear mother, and through a friend’s recommendation discovered her first album, Quelqu’un ma dit. It’s an album that has never been far from my mind since then, due to the lingering effects of Bruni’s wistful voice, romantic lyrics and fluid guitar. I very much enjoyed the fact that, because she sang in French, she hadn’t been through the British media circus. Until her relationship with Sarkozy began, Bruni was little known outside France, and to the best of my knowledge had played few concerts elsewhere. It was as though she didn’t much care for widespread British and American acceptance, and I loved that. Although the album was no doubt massively popular in continental Europe, I still felt like it was “my” album.

I had high hopes of the follow-up, No Promises, but sadly have been a little disappointed by it. In the first place, it’s sung in English. No doubt Bruni doesn’t need much help with her public profile any more, but I hope the decision to sing in English wasn’t made out of a desire to engage with the UK and US “markets”. And secondly, it’s not an album of original songs but a collection of settings of poems. I can’t fault the selection – Yeats, Auden, Dickinson – but still I can’t help wishing that Bruni had penned another set of lyrics to sit alongside the peerless romanticism of the first album.

Anyway, what with Valentine’s Day coming up and all, here’s a rough-and-ready English translation of Carla Bruni’s best song, the lorn and lovely “Quelqu’un ma dit”:

Someone told me our lives aren’t worth much
They pass in a moment, like a dying rose
Someone told me time is a bastard
making an overcoat of our sorrows
Someone told me
that you still loved me
Could it be true?

Someone told me destiny mocks us
it promises everything and gives us nothing
it seems that happiness is within our reach
so we hold out our hands and we find ourselves mad
Someone told me
that you still loved me
Could it be true?

But who was it that told me you still loved me?
I don’t recall, it was late at night
I can still hear the voice, but I can’t see the face
“he loves you, it’s a secret, don’t tell him I told you”
you see, someone told me
someone really did tell me
that you still loved me
Could it be true?

This translation © Richard Rees Jones 2008.