Al Stewart @Buxton Opera House 29/10/19

4 stars (out of 5)

0

Well, I’ll say this for him, he’s in good nick for 74. Then again, he has looked after himself.

Al Stewart played the first Glastonbury. He knew Yoko Ono before John Lennon. Paul Simon was his next door neighbour and he’s exchanged songwriting notes with Leonard Cohen. Born in Glasgow, raised in Dorset, went to London to seek his fortune and settled in LA when it all ‘worked out.’

He’s a strange hybrid, really. A product of the BritFolk boom of the late sixties following the obligatory dalliance with British Beat groups in the early sixties, he, almost accidentally, once he’d come out of contract with his first major record company, morphed into a ‘staple’ of American FM radio, a classic of the ‘yacht rock’ genre. His vocals lend quite a lot to the Graham Nash ‘razorthroat’ school of glass-shattering clarity and he wrote songs. Lots of them. And one of them, finally and irrevocably, cracked America – and indeed the world – wide open for him.

This tour is with Chicago’s Empty Pockets, acting as opener for the man himself and also as his ‘Band’. As an act in themselves they’re a pleasant listen, a bit soppy maybe for a cynical old BritBloke and despite some excellent electric piano and some guitar to relish, not entirely convinced about the male/female harmonies which seemed a little harsh at times.

However, as the ‘Al Stewart Band’, in effect, they proved to be just the ticket, a perfect compliment and support to one of Britain’s greatest living ‘Heritage’ songwriters.

An unmemorable first tune – disarmingly ‘fessed up’ to as such by Stewart who claimed nobody’s interested in the first tune anyway; they’re too busy seeing if you’ve got any hair left etc – soon gave way to a sumptuous “Flying Sorcery” which is a beautifully fresh, naïve-sounding song which just picks the listener up and sweeps them off. And straight away it’s pretty clear this won’t be a hair shirt fest – it’ll be a celebration of those radio-friendly specials which were beautifully produced and are just sumptuous.

This kicked straight into “Time Passages”; album title track and Billboard top ten hit single. Refreshing as an upland winter walk it was a gorgeous listen live with fabulous sax solos – which this song MUST have to work – and thick layers of wrap – around keyboards, this brought the house down, even this early in the set.

It isn’t all good news, though. This is the 20th gig of a 21-date UK tour. A big ask for a bloke in his mid-seventies and a band from Chicago who by their own admission were feeling seriously homesick. Not sure if this was the reason – or if age had just caught up with the vocal chords and squashed his range so he can’t quite reach those stratospheric upper octaves, I don’t know – but, and to an extent to his credit, he didn’t rely on the younger harmonies to cut in to sustain and ‘replace’ his voice, he just put his own voice out there and although on occasion this meant slightly strange harmonic arrangements to get through some songs, I didn’t spend the night cringing for him.

An early high point was “On The Border”, reached number 42 on Billboard and the ‘breakers’ in the UK (I’ve still got the demo 45 vinyl) with the spine-rattling bass intro and fiery Spanish guitar and as a listener you’re reminded of how timeless and relevant many of these songs still are. Somehow a song about the Spanish civil war throws light on Brexit (‘in the islands where I grew up nothing seems the same’, anyone?) Or Syria. Pick and mix your own analogy. A rich and fulfilling listen, by now he has the audience eating out of his hand, a relationship which he then cemented by responding to a holler from the audience for “Brooklyn”, an ‘old one’ from more folky times, which could only be played by himself and one band member as no-one else knew the song! Now there’s spontaneity…..

“Broadway Hotel” was the B-side of the UK “Year of the Cat” single and here the keyboards ‘roll’ beautifully. It’s just a great song about a sort of ‘accidental’ seduction.

“Almost Lucy” follows, another irresistible song from “Time Passages” which references in terms of content if not style, the early folk club days. By now I am truly in awe at how well this stuff is translating onto stage; but why should this be? He’s just played over 100 US and 20 UK gigs with this band, this body of work (with variations!) – you’d expect an experienced trouper like Stewart to nail this – and he does just that. Otherwise, and at the age of 74, why do this to yourself?

I always think it is asking for trouble, playing human jukebox to audience shouts, but he seems quite at home with this form of Russian Roulette, even when some Muppet yells out “Year of the Cat” (like, he’s really not going to play THAT one, right?) and settles on “Clifton in the Rain” which really is folky, whimsical stuff going back to the sixties. Bit twee for me, but, if that’s what floats your boat…..which segues into the vignette poem “Small Fruit Song” for a few seconds prior to the audience applauding warmly, as they had more or less all night. He really is Going Down Well.

The track before “Year of the Cat” on said album is “One Stage Before” and that’s the order they are dealt tonight. The latter is a troubadour song; the way an audience is seen by an artist – and it isn’t always as a bunch of woolly sweater wearers eating ice cream tubs, as it turns out. And it’s another great song, spiced up by some great guitar and keyboard work by the Empty Pockets.

Prior to the captivating keyboard intro to the main event, (otherwise known as the greatest FM airplay tune of all time and no, I am not exaggerating) Stewart tells us the story of “Year of the Cat”. Along with various English folkies and ex-folkies who had some success, (Steeleye Span, Incredible String Band, Insert Name Here), he’d been shipped out to the US and hadn’t gotten very far, as tended to be the way. And then he found himself opening for Linda Ronstadt, which was a great opportunity. It worked fine in the more liberal North and West, but they hated him with a vengeance in the southern states, where an eight-minute song about the Russians, introduced as a ‘Country and Eastern song’ very nearly got him killed. So he went off to invent something which might have a broader appeal…and found one of the band members messing about with a particular progression….which they then chucked just one note into, and then he wrote some enigmatic, seductive, shape-shifting lyrics…and after a whole lot of work by producer Alan Parsons, he came up with and again I say it the single best FM radio playlister, ever. Got to number five on Billboard, even got to number 31 in tone-deaf Britain where we were still transitioning from glam to punk, and it wasn’t a good look…and it eventually drove the album, and the follow-up album, platinum. Slow burner, but now almost every UK radio station playing AOR love songs will now feature this as a staple alongside Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs Jones” and Fat Larry’s Band and “Zoom”. Serving Suggestion. His conclusion (elsewhere) that he’d decided once he’d heard the final mix that if this wasn’t a hit, he couldn’t write a hit, proved very astute and possessed of an understanding of self which most musicians don’t seem to value.

Any slight misgivings about the slight lack of flexibility and range in the vocals are quickly disarmed by the ferocity and style of the guitar solo, the fluidity and drama of the main sax break, and the percussive but wandering piano fills and frills. It isn’t perfect, you’d need a whole bunch of strings for that and a voice that hadn’t been lived-in for quite so long but on balance this was one of my favourite five musical minutes of the year so far.

Difficult to know how you’d ‘ace’ that for an encore but “If It Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave It” (also from “Year of the Cat”) sounded like a fair call – described by Stewart as a ‘sort of Bruce Springsteen pastiche’ and being played like that tonight, it did the job well, especially when followed as a parting shot by a newish tune about growing old; ‘Getting out of the box that you made of your life….you’re young again!’ I’ll drink to that.

It’s fair to say the lad’s come a long way from Bournemouth. Soon after “Year of the Cat” broke out, he moved to LA to live – and stayed there. Cue the sneers? Well, you would, wouldn’t you? Al Stewart; well-travelled, intelligent, articulate and with a great sense of historical and artistic perspective, this elderly troubadour reaches parts other singer-songwriters can’t reach.

And thanks for “Year of the Cat”. You made me a lot of money playing a beautiful song to a lot of people a lot of times. And the wonder is, it never felt like it.