I have been a fan of Al Stewart for many years, but I never really kept up with him as a touring entity. I enjoyed the albums and that was pretty much it. Last summer, a full nine months in advance, it was announced that he would play (of all places) Hopewell, VA at the Beacon Theatre. I attended that show and had a wonderful time. Soon after that show was nothing but a memory, I found out that he was playing The Birchmere. Logistically, getting to Alexandria from Richmond isn’t as simple as Hopewell, but thanks to my friend Dana, we were able to attend the show Saturday night.
In March, Stewart was accompanied by virtuoso guitarist Dave Nachmanoff, and he added another dimension with his performance. Dave is on the road promoting his own record (“Spinoza’s Dream”) so for the most recent leg of this tour, including the Birchmere show, Al was accompanied by Marc Macisso.
Was this show as good as the show in March? No. Macisso is a great musician, and plays a whole lot of instruments (Flute, harmonica, bongos and saxophone), but he doesn’t play guitar. Stewart is a fantastic songwriter and lyricist, and he is a serviceable rhythm player, but he is not a lead guitarist. As good as Macisso was as an accompanist, the absence of a lead guitar was felt, and, even though it wasn’t mentioned, it seriously limited the songs from the catalog that could be performed acoustically. Having said that, the evening did have some nice surprises:
*Al played a short ditty called ‘The Candidate’, written in 1984, about those that run for the office of President who never have any chance of winning. I was hoping this would segue into his classic ‘Warren Harding’ but it did not. He did play it later in the set though.
*With Marc accompanying him, this meant that I got to hear ‘Time Passages’ and ‘Year of the Cat’ complete with sax solo! Now, granted, the production on those two songs is great, but it sounds so ‘of its time’ that the sax sometimes gets in the way. But, I was very happy to hear the solo performed on sax instead of on guitar. And, since the solo is in a different rhythm than the rest of the song, for both ‘Passages’ and ‘Cat’ before the solo started, Marc had the crowd clap on the offbeat so he could keep time with Al’s guitar, because, with no drummer counting, it would be very easy to get completely lost and never make it back to the chorus. I’m not sure how many in attendance realized why Marc was so insistent they clap along, but it made for two very cool moments.
*One of the additions to the set list since I last saw him was the song ‘Gina in the King’s Road’ from the 2009 album ‘A Beach Full of Shells.’ A lot of Al’s later (i.e. non-70s) material doesn’t get showcased live, so it was a nice surprise to hear this song from an overlooked record.
*At the start of the encore, Al talked about the current lawsuit involving ‘Stairway To Heaven’ and played a number of songs all with the same chord progression to demonstrate how many songs sound similar but different enough to be their own original compositions. Earlier in the set, Al talked about how he ‘wanted to be Roger Daltry’ when he was a kid, but knew immediately that he would never sing like that. His dreams of being a musician were rekindled when he heard Dylan for the first time and said ‘Hell, I can sing like that!’ He even sang a verse of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ and quoted ‘Ballad of a Thin Man.’ As a fan of both artists, it was a brief collision of two worlds.
*The best story of the night was about one of the few songs in Stewart’s catalog that everyone knows. While on tour in 1975 opening for Linda Ronstadt , Al’s piano player would test the sound levels during soubdchrck every night by playing the same melody, and after several nights in a row of hearing that melody, Al went to his piano player and said “I’ve written some lyrics to that melody and I’d like to record it. ”
“No it’s an instrumental.”
After asking his pianist several times, Al eventually received the go ahead to record the song with his lyrics, after assuring the piano player he could record his instrumental version. Sl’s version of course became the smash “Year of the Cat.” (No one knows if the instrumental version was ever recorded.)
*Lastly, Al told the story of meeting Leonard Cohen in 1966 and showing him lyrics to a song he had just written (‘In Brooklyn’). Cohen complimented him; a moment that Stewart says is still the highlight of his career as a songwriter.
Special thanks to Dana for seeing this show with me, and to The Birchmere for being one of the best live music venues around. I love the Birchmere so much that I am able to look past the hyper young kid who kept bouncing on the booth seat next to us for the entire show, and I am willing to forgive the (very) talkative fan who sat at our table and talked for an hour straight before the house lights finally dimmed.
House of Clocks
On the Border
Night Train to Munich
Fever (Marc Macisso Solo)
Route 66 (Marc Macisso Solo)
Pinball Wizard (riff)/Subterranean Homesick Blues (snippet)
Gina in the King’s Road
Year of the Cat
Stairway to Heaven/Teenager in Love/Stay (snippets)