There are so few songwriters who can truly create word pictures or incorporate complex subjects into their songs.
Cat Stevens, Paul Simon, Donald Fagen, and Bernie Taupin come to mind. Perhaps John Lennon or Bruce Springsteen as story tellers.
But if you want someone else who absolutely belongs on that lofty list, look no further than Al Stewart.
The Scottish-born, England-raised singer-songwriter may have had only two charted hits, “Year of the Cat” and “Time Passages”, but he has created fifteen albums with songs as rich as the vintage wine in his personal collection.
For quite a while I had been trying to secure an interview with Stewart, who now calls Los Angeles home. I was told that Al was not very tech savvy. So I suggested an in-person interview, only to see the gig postponed for four months. But the day finally arrived, and we sat down for a wide-ranging discussion, just before his set at Space in Evanston, Illinois.
That thick, long dark hair from his seventies is mostly gone. It’s short and gray now, but still present. Stewart, thin and dressed in a sport coat, dress shirt and slacks looks more like your favorite uncle who loves to tell great stories at a family dinner.
In twenty-four uninterrupted minutes we covered a host of topics, from how he was born at the right time, joined the burgeoning folk-rock scene of the late sixties in London, to the craft of songwriting. In any other time, I could see him as a History or Literature professor lecturing English prep school students. Stewart tells these stories with great emotion, wonderful charm and lots of laughs.
Normally I would transcribe chunks of the interview and weave them into a story, but it was such a fascinating conversation that writing it down simply wouldn’t do it justice. He talks about having Paul Simon as a flatmate, and hearing a couple of Simon classic songs as they were being written. Listen to Al weigh in on his friendship with Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson, and Jimmy Page before his Led Zeppelin days.
“Do not try this at home but, my habit was to record all the music before I had written any of the lyrics. On the grounds that I’m a lyric writer and I should know how to do this. Usually people write the words, then they record the music to go with the words. I do it backwards.”-Al Stewart
Hear the story behind the song “Year of the Cat”. How it started out as “Foot of the Stage”, about an English comedian, Tony Hancock, who committed suicide. A long since shelved line was, “His tears fell down / Like rain at the foot of the stage.” The record company told him nobody in America would get it. So it morphed into a new song.
I purposely asked about songs that he had been playing in recent concert dates, as well as some of my personal favorites like “Love Chronicles”, “Electric Los Angeles Sunset” and several from his album of history-themed songs, Past, Present, and Future.
Lastly, get his take on the passing of Queen Elizabeth and Stewart’s connection to Scottish royalty.
Then, my wife who acted as producer for the interview, and I joined the crowd and were treated to a delightful seventy-five minute show of songs from Year of the Cat and four of Stewart’s other albums. Every song was previewed with an origin story, including some that we had heard during the interview.
His backup band was The Empty Pockets, a blues-rock ensemble from right here in Chicago. Longtime collaborator Marc Macisso added sax, flute, and harmonica. The Empty Pockets opened with a set of original music and a fantastic cover of Fairport Convention’s “Meet on the Ledge”.
Al Stewart setlist from 18 September 2022