Ever since I pilfered my mother's vinyl copy of Time Passages (1978) circa 1983, I have been a fan of Al Stewart. Anyone who was vaguely conscious in the late 1970s knows a few of his top 40 hits—"Time Passages," "Song on the Radio," "Midnight Rocks," and (you'll know this one) "Year of the Cat." They were actually pretty unlikely top 40 hits, in retrospect, and as much as I liked the hits (pretty unusual for me) the album tracks reflected Stewart's tremendous in history, such that he today has been dubbed "the king of historical folk rock." Time Passages alone includes "The Palace of Versailles" (the French Revolution), "A Man for All Seasons" (Thomas More). Other Stewart subjects have included American presidents, Nostradamus, World Wars I and II, somewhat obscure figures from British History (Lord Grenville) and so on.
So when I saw that he was going to be playing Caffe Lena here in Saratoga, I couldn't resist. So last Tuesday, about 80 people packed Caffe Lena (it sold out)--and I have to admit it was one of the best shows I have seen. As of late, Stewart has been doing more the folk thing, touring with co-guitarist and singer Dave Nachmanoff (who also served as opening act--he has a few albums out and his latest Step Up is fantastic; I got to meet him between sets--and meet Al after the show). The set was an eclectic mix of stuff--some obscure, some not so much--from his 44-year career (his debut album came out in 1967--damn, that was 44 years ago...), up to his recent album Sparks of Ancient Light (2008), which is every bit as good as the records he put out in the 1970s and 80s, even if he doesn't have Alan Parsons as producer any longer.
He was big on between-song banter, talking about the historical subjects of the songs, albeit in a humorous, light-hearted way (he's a very funny guy), or just joking about the songs (like the lyrics "The literati in their cellars/Perform semantic tarantellas" in "Princess Olivia"). He and Nachmanoff play together extremely well, they have a great chemistry, and they seem to be having a blast. And Nachmanoff knows many of Al's songs better than Al does--they didn't stick to a preset setlist, but tended to wing it. ("Let's see if I remember this one..." was a recurring line, and at one point kept changing his mind about what song to play next.) Toward the end of the second set, he asked for requests--and everyone shouted out a a cacophony of titles (someone even yelled out "Freebird"--no, not me). "So, basically, every song I ever wrote," he commented before doing "Merlin's Time" from 1980's 24 Carrots. He followed that up, and closed the second set, with a rousing acoustic version of "Year of the Cat." Afterward, he commented, "Some crowds prefer obscurities and get upset if you play a hit. That seemed to go okay." Indeed it did.
Other highlights included the "Presidential trilogy," when they realized that they could actually play three songs in a row about U.S. presidents--well, not actually about them, per se; "it's just another way of using metaphor," he explained. Warren Harding and William McKinley? Strangely it works.
The crowd was a little hardcore; at my table was a longtime dedicated fan who drive up from Newark. Another felt compelled to correct one of Al's comments about William Jennings Bryan having lost the Scopes Monkey Trial (this was true, Bryan won, but Scopes' conviction was overturned due to a technicality). That's the kind of crowd it was.
It was a fantastic show, and I hope to catch them again.
Setlist (his Web site includes links to historical info about the subjects of some of his songs):
Fragile Thing (Dave Nachmanoff solo)
In Sickness and in Health (Dave Nachmanoff solo)
House of Clocks
Like William McKinley
A Child's View of the Eisenhower Years
On the Border
Rain King (Dave Nachmanoff solo)
Palace of Versailles
Post World War II Blues
Year of the Cat
Sheila Won't Be Coming Home (Dave Nachmanoff solo song with Al playing along)
Katherine of Oregon
Here's an oldie, Al Stewart performing "Time Passages" (still my favorite) in 1978 (the shrill female voice is not on the record):