Johnny Walker’s Sounds of the Seventies has an interview with Al Stewart this week!
The rest of this post is a complete ramble, full of enthusiasm and entirely lacking in insight and you’d be better off just listening to Johnny and Al. You’ll learn, what you probably already knew, that Al used to be in Tony Blackburn’s backing band!
I went about 18 years without seeing any live music at all, at least none aimed at adults-who-are-not-the-parents-of-the-performers. One of our regular commenters, Tom Hurka, expressed horror when I told him how long it had been and worked hard on convincing me to come back into the fold (thanks Tom); eventually, my wife noticed that (the now late) Bert Jansch was opening for Neil Young in Milwaukee, and got me to go. It has become a habit, to the extent that it is no longer the case that I have seen Richard Thompson and Loudon Wainwright III more often than everybody else put together (even though I have seen both in this past two years). Summer 2013 it was Steely Dan (really terrific, and obviously completely comfortable with the fact that they are doing nostalgic greatest hits sets, which, my friend who went with me and saw them more than a decade ago says they weren’t then) and Taylor Swift (great, actually, though I’d rather see Kacey Musgraves; but I’m terrified of heights, so I now know that Arena acts don’t work for me) in the space of a week. I saw the Moody Blues a couple of weeks ago. I admit that the best highlight of that, for me and everyone who was sitting close to me, was the uncontrollable and infectious giggling of my 12-year old, for whom the sight of all those old people dancing and punching the air in the aisles was entertainment enough (isn’t it time for a movie of Spinal Tap on revival?); but the lesser highlight was learning, by watching them live, just why the Moody Blues were so successful—they are, still, a simply brilliant live band—every hit was better than any of the recordings I’ve heard of it. (Afterwards, though, I had the following thought: suppose I had prepared just 4 hours worth of lecture, and then, 100 or so nights a year, for 50 years, delivered 2 or so hours of that 4 hours I had prepared: I’d be pretty good by the end of it, I think). At the Steely Dan concert I was probably a little below the median age, and my 65 year old friend was definitely above it; at the Moody Blues I think there were only five people younger than me, and I brought two of them, and my 65 year old friend, had he been willing to come along, would have been below the median age. Of course, at Taylor Swift, my 12 year old was the above the median.
But in summer 2012 I drove an indecently long way just to see Al Stewart, and his opening act (and lead guitarist), Dave Nachmanoff. I had become a fan of Al’s only in the early 2000s, intrigued by the (difficult to believe) information that Year of the Cat was written about my hero, Tony Hancock. It turns out that the first version of the song was, indeed, written about him—Al saw Hancock performing live sometime in the mid-60s, and was horrified (as everyone was) by seeing the train wreck in motion, and foresaw (as, by all accounts, many people did) what was to happen. I had always assumed that he wrote just two other good songs (his two other big hits, Time Passages, and Across the Border). But no—he has whole albums full of great songs and some, especially those from the seventies, sound as if they could have been made yesterday (apart from the fact that it is hard to imagine a record company these days putting out an album like Past, Present & Future the centerpiece of which is probably Al’s greatest song—8 minutes about the German army’s progress on the Eastern front. I’m not kidding, either about the subject matter, or that it’s his greatest). I took the leap of looking up whether he’d be playing anywhere near me and noticed (to my surprise, as you can imagine), that his regular opening act, and accompanist, the aforementioned Dave Nachmanoff, is a former graduate student of mine, whom I taught at UC Davis in the very early 90’s. (I know that teachers should promote their students’ academic work, but should they promote their art? Either way, here’s his most recent solo album, Step Up. I like it a lot). It was a lot of fun seeing the look on his face when I said hi before the concert.
Anyway, if you get a chance to see either of them, it is well worth it—Al is an accomplished performer of great songs, and Dave has an uncanny ability to make a single guitar sound like a whole band.