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Al Stewart


Al Stewart Live: Edmonds, Wash. January 29, 2011

Al Stewart Live: Edmonds, Wash. January 29, 2011

I don't mean it as a put-down in the slightest, but I didn't exactly jump out of my seat when I found out that Al Stewart was coming to town. Unlike some of the artists I've seen in the past—such as David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Brian Wilson and The Rolling Stones—I confess to not knowing Al Stewart's material terribly well. There's really just one album in his repertoire that I've listened to dozens of times, and that is Year of the Cat. I've treated myself to precursory listens of his other albums, but I'd only thus far made mental notes about them that, sometime, I would like to spend more time with them. However, now that I've seen him live, that mental note has been highlighted and put in bold font.

It was quite a modest show, just Stewart and his latest sideman Dave Nachmanoff playing acoustic guitars. Occasionally, a bassist named Mike Lindauer would pop by. The venue itself, The Edmonds Center for the Arts, is very tiny; only a few hundred people could fit in there. When I bought the tickets last October, I was mildly upset that I could only get balcony seats; but as I found out to my delight, it was hardly the nosebleed section. If I can make out specific details of the artist's face at a venue so that I can personally verify that it's not some sort of imposter, then I know that I've landed a pretty good seating arrangement. The acoustics were even more impressive; it was just a couple guys strumming their acoustic guitars, and yet the sound reverberated throughout that auditorium so well that I'd wager they really didn't need to be amplified by microphones. I might be sounding like a PR person when I say this, but I pretty much have to go to anybody that's playing at that venue now, because the sound quality and seats were too good to pass up. (I've already bought tickets to Randy Newman there in April! They were expensive as hell--$55--but I can already imagine how FANTASTIC his piano is going to sound there. The Al Stewart show, on the other hand, was a mere $30, which seems weirdly inexpensive.)

The only drawback was that the seats were so tight and jam packed that they were even worse than the worst airplane seats I've ever encountered. I'm not terribly tall and my knees are in pretty good shape, so I got away with it, but considering that most of the people in the audience were decrepit OLD PEOPLE, I had to bear through a fair share of in-house grumbling. In particular, it was upsetting terribly an old, chinless bugger who was sitting next to me. ...I could also tell, from that guy, and others, that a lot of people only attended the performance because it was something to do close to home. Not everyone was specifically a fan of his. ...However on that note, I guess I have to put myself in that category. The concert was close to home. It's not like I was going to road trip for 14 hours to see him, like I did that one time for that one artist. And I've already admitted that the only album I know of Stewart's deeply well is The Year of the Cat. (But I have this Blog, you see. I have a concert review collection!)

Oh, should I talk about the songs he performed? ...Come to think of it, there's not a whole lot to say about them, since there wasn't a terrible amount of variety. The show consisted completely of Al Stewart and Dave Nachmanoff playing acoustic guitars on a bare stage. And I mean, that stage was bare. They didn't even have a stool for when one of them got tired. ...However, by the looks of it, neither of them were going to get tired any time soon. Al Stewart, at 65, looked lively as ever, strumming away wildly with his rhythm guitar, and bobbing his head almost consistently. His voice, very surprisingly, sounds exactly the same way as it did in his '70s albums; if I had my eyes closed the entire time and I was stoned so that I had forgotten what year it was, it might have never occurred to me that he had aged at all. Nachmanoff, 45, was hopping around on stage like a teenager, playing some surprisingly wild and spirited lead guitar. Sometimes, his guitar was so hardened that they practically reinvented the original material. Most Al Stewart songs are correctly identified as “soft pop,” but this guy amazingly made some of those songs rock a bit. That's saying something, since there were absolutely no drummers within a 10-mile radius of the venue, and the bassist was only there about half the time. (At one point, it seemed like he was confused about when he should come out... While Stewart and Nachmanoff were tuning their guitars and bantering about, I saw him take about three steps on the stage, wait for a moment, and take three steps back. Immediately afterwards, he took about seven steps out, waited for a moment, and took seven steps back... I guess he was waiting for an engraved invitation! ...Or maybe he didn't want to just suddenly pop up next to Al Stewart to have him tell him in his twee, Scottish voice “What are you doing here?”)

Some of the songs I immediately recognized, and others I didn't. “On the Border” and “Midas Shadow” were two songs that I knew straight away, because they're from Year of the Cat. He also played the title track, of course, because he's obligated to play what's by far his most recognizable hit. (He changed one of the lyrics to—I'm paraphrasing—“I can't believe I'm singing this song again.” Hilarious.) Oh, and you can bet he he also performed “Time Passages,” his second-most recognizable tune. If he didn't, all those affluent old people in the crowd probably would have stoned him with their Rolex watches.

I have to admit I was a bit saddened that he didn't play “Lord Grenville,” which for whatever reason, is my favorite song of his. It's one of those rare songs in the universe that transfixes me completely whenever I listen to it, like what happens to one of Elaine's boyfriends in Seinfeld when he hears “Desperado.” Perhaps if I screamed out at Stewart during the show, like a few people did in the crowd, he would have heeded my request? He performed “Roads to Moscow” during the encore based on someone's screaming, which he said he hadn't sung in a year. ...He said he might forget it and stop in the middle, but it all seemed as solidly performed as anything else that evening! Another person really wanted to hear him perform a song called “Three Mules,” a piece from his 1995 album Between the Wars. He apologized politely, and said that's one of the 37 songs in his repertoire that he's never performed live, and he wasn't about to start. (I've only been able to listen to a 30-second snippet of it on amazon.com, and... er... what's so special about it, I wonder? I guess I'll know more about it whenever I get around to buying it and reviewing it. I do know that the song is no “Lord Grenville,” however! That jerk didn't know what songs to holler at him!)

He did perform “Night Train to Munich” from that 1995 album, an excellent song that he said was styled after gypsy music. Another song I never heard before but I thought was memorable was “Antarctica” from 1988's Last Days of the Century, which is reportedly his worst album ever. But that song was as good as anything... And taking a listen to the studio version of it just now, I'd wager the album is called his worst due to those awful drum machines and synthesizers throughout it. Ugh! What the late '80s did to people! ...He also gave his most amusing pre-song dialog before it about how Britain declares failures as national heroes... such as Robert Falcon Scott, the second person to reach the South Pole and died on the return voyage. (There's some of that wickedly dark British humor.)

Another memorable spoken-word moment of the evening was when Stewart announced that someone back stage had asked him who he thought the worst president in US history was. A split second later, a few douche bags in the crowd screamed “George Bush!” at him. (Holy crap, if there is anything worse than rich people, it's rich people who are liberal.) But no, with a bit of common sense and keeping a foot in history at all times, he said probably the worst president in US history is James Buchanan. After all, he said, George Bush didn't start a Civil War. ...He also said that Warren Harding was pretty miserable, which was when he started to sing “Warren Harding” off of Past, Present & Future.

Stewart and Nachmanoff really liked to banter with one another on stage. Truth be told, I had a hard time following what they were saying half the time, and whenever I did understand it, it was a bunch of goofy nonsense. But they certainly seemed to have a fun time saying it to each other! Occasionally, they would let off a good one, which would set the crowd in laughter. At one point, he described one of Nachmanoff's guitar tones as Frampton-esque noise, which was great. Even apart from the banter, the pair did look like they were having fun playing with one another, occasionally engaging in mock staring contests as they were going through some of their extended instrumental passages. My only complaint is I got just a tad tired of Nachmanoff constantly telling us how great he thinks Al Stewart is. He even divulged to us how as a child he used to dream about playing lead guitar for him. ...That's sweet, if it's true, but he'd been touring with Stewart for a few years now, and he hadn't yet gotten the stars out of his eyes? ...Well, maybe he's an enthusiastic sort of person! I guess that means he's the exact opposite of how I come off to people when I meet them in real life.

In addition to playing some almost inappropriately awesome lead acoustic guitar for Al Stewart, Nachmanoff took the opportunity to perform about five or six songs from his own career. He has a fairly extensive back catalog, if Wikipedia can be trusted at all (which I do with 100 percent of my mortal being). His songs are usually very good. As Stewart himself even admitted, Nachmanoff has much more of a penchant for writing catchy choruses than he does (to which his greatest fanboy replied, to paraphrase, 'but he writes the greatest verses on earth'). Perhaps his most memorable song was a crowd-pleaser about two people who fall in love online and meet each other in real life for the first time. (The lyrics are filled with playful Internet lingo.) The pair also apparently collaborated on a song, which they said they just finished the previous night. For sure, it was one of those songs with catchy choruses, and they wanted the whole crowd to join them in singing it. I've got to admit, however, I didn't find the song to be terribly wonderful. However, it was pretty awesome to witness the debut of a brand new song! Maybe they'll iron it out better if it ever gets studio treatment?

And with that, I say it was a good show! The only thing left to mention was that Stewart was selling and signing posters afterward. The poster reportedly had every single historical character in it that he mentions in all of his songs, which amounts to more than 100 of them. (The guy who apparently designed the poster came out on stage and sang back-up for the chorus of the “new song.” Whenever he sang, he kept on lifting up his right leg like some sort of weird flamingo.) ...I didn't end up getting a poster, though. It might have been fun to see Al Stewart face-to-face, but I've never been into collecting autographs, and I wasn't about to start then (just like he wasn't about to start singing “Three Mules”). I also never know what to say to famous people. ...I mean, I wouldn't have come off too great telling him “I like your music, duerrrrrr!” to which he would have replied in his polite, rapid-tongued, and high-pitched voice “Why, thank you very much, indeed!” It's just pointless living out what I know will be an inevitability in my head.

Apparently, Al Stewart coming to the Seattle area isn't such a rare occurrence. He played at a casino last October (which was shortly after I purchased the tickets), and he's coming to a hotel around here this May. This town must treat him well since he seems to frequent it more than anyplace else. But just in case anyone is curious, I will pass on the May concert. I had a great experience, but I can't hog the poor man all to myself.

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