Al Stewart performs March 22 at the Capitol Theatre.
CLEARWATER – In late 1970s, Al Stewart’s multi-million-selling singles “Year of the Cat” and “Time Passages” were omnipresent on the FM radio dial. These two commercially successful hits represent only a fraction of this singer-songwriter folk-rock musician’s total body of work.
Stewart will give audiences a taste of his musicianship Saturday, March 22, 7:30 p.m., at Capitol Theatre, 405 Cleveland St., Clearwater.
Guitarist Dave Nachmanoff and bassist Mike Lindauer will accompany Stewart.
Like the fine wines that are his hobby, Stewart’s gifts as a singer and songwriter have matured and ripened over the course of his musical career, stretching from the early ’60s to the present. He may be best known for the 1976 album “Year of the Cat,” which spawned two Top 20 hits, the title song and “On the Border.” Not one to rest on his laurels, Stewart is nearing the 20-album mark, and remains a distinctively literate and vivid storyteller, time traveling and teleporting himself and his listeners from World War I battlefields to ’60s bedrooms, from ships to airplanes to ice floes, from the specific to the mysterious.
According to a biography provided by Skyline Music, Al Stewart was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1945. He was still very young when his family relocated to Bournemouth, a seaside town in the South of England. As it turned out, it was in Bournemouth that Stewart purchased his first guitar in the 1960s. Stewart bought that particular instrument from Andy Summers, who would go on to become the lead guitarist of The Police. Robert Fripp, who later formed the prog-rock band King Crimson, taught Stewart his first guitar licks.
By age 16, Stewart was playing guitar in a variety of local bands.
“In 1963 The Beatles were breaking out in England,” Stewart said in the liner notes to “Greatest Hits,” a collection issued by Rhino Records in 2004. “I wanted to be Al Beatle. Along came the Rolling Stones and I wanted to be Keith Richards.”
Then Stewart heard Bob Dylan’s original songs. His reaction must have resembled a musical epiphany because Stewart completely shifted his focus from instrumentalist to lyricist and vocalist.
In 1965, Stewart moved to London where he got a gig as emcee at the Les Cousins, a well-known folk club. There, he met emerging artists such as Paul Simon, Ralph McTell, Bert Jansch and Cat Stevens. He soon started writing and performing his own songs, first at Les Cousins and later at other folk clubs and colleges across England. He became associated with a number of folk-oriented groups such as the Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention and The Pentangle.
In 1967, Stewart released his debut album, “Bedsitter Images.” The album showcased the folk-rock musician’s knack for observational storytelling. Most tracks utilized a full orchestra and featured orchestration by Irish composer and conductor Alexander Faris. The follow-up album, 1969’s “Love Chronicles,” featured a number of prominent supporting musicians such as Jimmy Page (of Led Zeppelin) and four members of Fairport Convention.
Over the next few years, Stewart would record and release two more albums – “Zero She Flies” in 1970 and “Orange” in 1972 – written autobiographical mode. Then, in 1973, his focus abruptly shifted.
On the album “Past, Present & Future,” the singer-songwriter adjusted his lyrical gaze outward, contemplating history, literature and current events. Anchored by historical themes, each song represents a different decade of the 20th century. The song “Roads to Moscow,” for instance, recounts the story of the German invasion of Russia during World War II, shown through the eyes of a Russian partisan.
Building on the appeal of this album, Stewart next released “Modern Times.” This 1975 album made it onto the U.S. Top 40 charts and generated enough interest to justify a full-length U.S. tour.
‘Year of the Cat’
In 1976, Al Stewart released “Year of the Cat.”
The album generated two Top 20 hits – “Year of the Cat” and “On the Border” – on its way to becoming a million-selling record.
The album was produced and engineered by Alan Parsons. In addition to the hit singles, the album also includes tracks such as “Lord Grenville,” about Sir Richard Grenville, an Elizabethan explorer.
The album is widely considered to be Stewart’s masterpiece. Its title track transcends the artist’s folk-rock background with its protracted instrumental sections. The full-length album version of the song incorporates an extended series of solos featuring cello, violin, piano, acoustic and distorted electric guitar, synthesizer and saxophone.
The follow-up album, “Time Passages,” reunited Stewart and Parsons. The 1978 release mirrored the success of its predecessor and scored a Top 10 hit with the title track as well as a Top 30 single with “Song on the Radio.”
Moving into the 1980s, Stewart continued to record and release albums, though new trends in music kept his work from receiving as much popular attention. In the early ’90s, Stewart returned to his folk roots, setting off on a solo tour of the UK. He also released the album “Famous Last Words,” which utilized acoustic instrumentation and traditional folk and classical styles. He followed up with 1995’s “Between the Wars,” an album featuring songs set in and themes focusing on the 1920s and 1930s. This album was Stewart’s first collaboration with former Wings guitarist Laurence Juber. He partnered with Juber again in 2000 for the album “Down in the Cellar,” a concept album cleverly capitalizing on Stewart’s knowledge of fine wines.
More recently, Stewart released “Uncorked,” a live album recorded with Dave Nachmanoff.
The 2009 album is described as “take a trip through Stewart’s musical back pages, both in terms of the musical catalogue and in terms of performance style,” according to a press release from Skyline Music.
Stewart reveals that during the height of his success in the late 1970s, he never felt all that comfortable on stage.
“I don’t think I ever knew how to be in front of a band,” said Stewart in the press release. “I always felt I was loitering there while they were doing all the work.”
For “Uncorked,” Stewart’s first live acoustic disc since 1992’s “Rhymes In Rooms,” both the singer-songwriter and his collaborator made a decision not to replicate any of the tracks from that disc, even if it meant leaving off such standards as “On the Border.
“Because I’ve learned all of Al’s songs, we had an opportunity to revisit some of the tunes that hadn’t been featured in more recent years,” said Nachmanoff. In fact, Stewart and Nachmanoff are still apt to mix things up a bit while touring. “I think at this point, we can actually do three or four full shows and never play the same songs twice. And while Al usually comes in to a gig with a set list in mind, often times, we’ll just throw it out and go with the flow.”
If “Uncorked” is any indication of Stewart’s newfound musical freedom, the Capitol Theatre concert will be well-received. The musician’s guitar work is better now than it was back in the day, thanks to the acoustic touring configuration that brings his musical contributions more to the fore.
“It’s much more enjoyable for me to hear myself and for the audience to hear the words,” said Stewart. “And the audience seems to agree. The way I look at it, if I can still get everybody on their hind legs at the end of show cheering, then I’ve won.”