Al Stewart Biography
Last updated: 05/09/2012 12:00:00 PM
Ask Al Stewart to sum up where he is now, musically speaking, and you're likely to wind up two steps behind where you started; this is by no means an unusual circumstance in conversation with Al, keenly aware as he is that making a leap forward often entails taking a step backward. Sometimes it's into the library stacks where the late historian Ms. Tuchman dug for material. Sometimes it's into the record stacks where the late rocker Mr. Cochran made his mark as a teenager singing his "Summertime Blues" so many summertime's ago.
In many ways, the summertime of Stewart's 2009 much more resembled his summer of 1969 than it did the summer of 1979, when his multi-million-selling "Year of the Cat" and "Time Passages" were staples of FM radio, and he was touring with saxes, synths, singers, and all the accoutrements pop stardom brings. "I don't think I ever knew how to be in front of a band," says Al, a little modestly. "I always felt I was loitering there while they were doing all the work."
With the release of Uncorked, Al and musical partner Dave Nachmanoff take a trip through Stewart's musical back pages, both in terms of the musical catalogue (they did have nearly 20 albums' worth of songs to pick from), and in terms of performance style. After all, Al made his bones in the massively fertile folk scene that was London in the late '60s, and he numbers among his contemporaries the likes of guitar wizards Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, singer-songwriters Roy ("Hats Off To") Harper and Richard Thompson, and a former flatmate named Paul Simon, who went on to some celebrity upon returning to America.
Recorded live during a springtime East Coast swing, Uncorked is the first live acoustic disc Al's done since 1992's Rhymes In Rooms, and both he and Nachmanoff made a conscious decision not to replicate any of the tracks from that disc, even if it meant leaving off such standards as "On the Border" and the two aforementioned Top 40 hits. "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," says Nachmanoff. "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."
As a consequence, it sounds like the duo isn't merely playing well (fact is, Al's guitar work is actually even 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 sounds like they're having fun. And if the title tracks from albums like Last Days of the Century and Bedsitter Images don't immediately conjure images of major-label milestones, that's just fine with Al. "It's much more enjoyable for me to hear myself and for the audience to hear the words," says 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 a show cheering, then I've won."
Like Uncorked itself, that's vintage Al.
What others are saying
"Al Stewart's name will forever be tied to his breakout hits "Year of the Cat" and "Time Passages". This is unfortunate, because there is much more to this whimsical Scottish folksinger, who weaves humor and historical figures into his polished story-songs. Happily, Uncorked, a collection of 12 songs from Al's back catalogue, recorded live with brilliant lead guitarist and verbal sparring partner Dave Nachmanoff, is a perfect introduction to that "other" Al Stewart. The album's title has a double meaning: it refers to wine, which is one of Al's great passions (he is an award-winning wine connoisseur); it also refers to the live and unplugged format of the recording, which features only the two performers and their acoustic guitars. This stripped-down arrangement allows both musicians' nifty guitar work to shine through. Indeed, on "News from Spain", Dave performs the piano solo (played by Rick Wakeman in the studio version) alone on guitar, and he does so flawlessly. The live recording also captures the performers' easygoing banter onstage, including a long song introduction titled "Auctioning Dave", and some verbal contretemps "hidden" after the final track. Quite intentionally, there are no Al Stewart hits in this collection. (Live versions of those hits were previously included on the 1992 album Rhymes in Rooms.) Rather, these songs are chosen from the best of Al's early songwriting career, from 1967's "Bedsitter Images" to 1988's "Last Days of the Century". Several of Al's historical songs, such as "Palace of Versailles", "Warren Harding", and "Old Admirals" are featured. Overall, these 12 songs, recorded at three northeastern venues during a tour in November 2008, are excellent representatives of Al Stewart's long career, and show off the fine musicianship and easy rapport that these two performers have on stage. Highly recommended."
- SS - SingOut! (Jun 29, 2010)
"Uncorked is an intimate setting played in front of a small, but appreciative audience. It's music is rich and classic Al Stewart, music you can fall in love with. If you are an Al Stewart fan, spanning beyond his peak years, than this set is a must for you. The sound is wonderful and unhampered providing for undiluted Al Stewart. I believe you're going to love this Live set."
- Matt Rowe - Music Tap
"British talent Al Stewart has always been obsessed with romantic literature and history, marking him as the most incongruous of folk-flavored "pop" singers. ‘Year of the Cat' delivered Al a fluke hit – once. And the man is still going his own merry way on Sparks of Ancient Light (A-), citing the likes of Greek mythology, former president William McKinley, an Elvis sighting and ‘(A Child's View of) The Eisenhower Years.' But the guy sings and writes as well as he ever did, and in his quirky, bemused and literate way he's delivered one of the finest albums of his career."
- Jonathan Takiff - Philadelphia Daily News