“Sometimes it seems unimaginable that you were ever any other way” sings Al Stewart on his song Carol.  Sometimes it seems unimaginable that Stewart could have been anything other than a singer/songwriter.  Moving from Glasgow to Dorset  as a child, he went on to  buy his first guitar from future Police man Andy Summers, took guitar lessons from a teenage Robert Fripp and on moving to London, shared a flat with a little-known songwriter by the name of Paul Simon.

Stewart had already carved out a career as a folk-rock singer songwriter, noted for a tendency to base his songs around historical events or people from the past, when  his 1976 Year Of The Cat Album propelled him to another level with its FM radio-friendly pop rock.  That album’s success provided Stewart with the security to record and tour at his leisure, or to retire should he want to, so the fact that he is still touring at the age of 71 is a clear indication that he is doing so out of pleasure rather than necessity.

Throughout his career Stewart has surrounded himself with terrific musicians; guitarists in particular.  His early recordings saw him backed by Richard Thomson and Jimmy Page while Rick Wakeman provided piano and organ.  Tim Renwick, part of Pink Floyd’s touring band and a highly respected session guitarist, became something of a regular feature on Stewart’s albums and is here tonight along with Dave Nachmanoff, Stewart’s regular touring and recording guitarist these days.

An artist’s choice of pre-show music often says something about their own musical tastes.  Tonight’s pre-show music is played at such a low volume that it is barely perceptible but it slowly dawns on me that what we are listening to are acoustic instrumental versions of Al Stewart songs.  I’m not sure if this is a reflection of Al Stewart’s ego or simply a gentle aide-memoir in case the ageing audience forget who it is they have come out to see, but it’s an unusual move in any case.

After a couple of warm up numbers from Nachmanoff, Stewart joins him on stage and opens with House Of Clocks from his Down In The Cellar album, the only song played tonight that possibly couldn’t be considered to be an Al Stewart classic.  It’s a fine song though and serves as a perfectly acceptable warm up.  Stewart goes back to the title track of his first album, Bedsitter Images, for his next song.  “Someone did a cover of this” he says.  “The Pet Shop Boys” Nachmanoff interjects.  “No” says Stewart “Mark Almond, and he sang it exactly like I do.”  It’s true that both Almond and Neil Tennant share a similar vocal style to Stewart and that Bedsittter Images, with its depiction of urban loneliness could easily have been a Pet Shop Boys hit.

After another early song, In Brooklyn, Al introduces Tim Renwick to the stage explaining that Nachmanoff has learned all of Renwick’s solos and can play them perfectly but tonight he doesn’t have to.  Kicking off with Flying Sorcery we are treated to a selection of songs from Year Of The Cat and its follow up album, Time Passages.  The passage of time doesn’t seem to have affected Stewart at all, he still sings with the same light, youthful, somewhat fey voice and his own guitar playing is full of energy, holding its own with Nachmanoff’s and Renwick’s virtuosic flourishes.   As it turns out, Renwick doesn’t play all of his own solos.  Nachmanoff takes a few and makes them his own, proving to be a match for his fellow guitarist.  This is no mean feat when you consider that David Gilmour chose Renwick for the touring version of a Pink Floyd and he has also played in Eric Clapton’s tour band.

Harking back to his pre-fame Bournemouth days, Stewart reveals that he used to share a bus journey to school with Robert Fripp, during which they would discuss guitar technique.  “You must learn jazz chords.  Jazz chords are important” says Stewart in an approximation of Fripp’s West Country burr.  Stewart’s response was that as he intended to be a folk lyricist, he really didn’t think jazz chords would be any use to him at all. He goes on to say that many years later he read an interview with Fripp in a guitar magazine in which the King Crimson guitar guru was asked if any of his former pupils had gone on to be successful.  “Yes” Fripp replied, “Al Stewart, and he ignored everything I ever told him.”

After Old Admirals and Carol from my favourite Al Stewart album, Modern Times, we come to the inevitable finale, Year Of The Cat.  The extensive instrumental coda is admirably handled by all three guitarists until Renwick slightly fluffs a line and Nachmanoff good-naturedly seizesj an opportunity to upstage him.

The trio return for an encore of If It Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave It.  Stewart then calls for suggestions for the final number and picks the appropriately-titled End Of The Day.  I’m left with a feeling of regret that I never took the opportunity I had to see Al Stewart with a full band back in 1978, but tonight has been a joy; a great selection of songs and a tremendous performance all round.

Setlist

House of Clocks

Bedsitter Images

In Brooklyn

Flying Sorcery

Sand in Your Shoes

On the Border

Time Passages

The Palace of Versailles

One Stage Before

Midas Shadow

Broadway Hotel

Old Admirals

Carol

Year of the Cat

If It Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave It

End of the Day

John Scott

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