Paul Jackson Music

Paul Jackson Music

Saturday, 1 June 2013

#6 “You Should Have Listened To Al”

Discovering the music of a new artist, or even a long established artist for the first time, happens in a variety of ways. Either via a song on the radio or seeing a band live and investigating them further. A less common way has been through performing in a covers band where instead of just admiring the surface of a song, you actually get under the hood and explore its inner workings.
In my late teens, I became friends with a fellow musician who, being a few years my senior, had a musical palette pre-dating mine featuring  artists and musical genres  that weren’t on my radar.

Martin had performed solo as a singer and guitarist and invited me to accompany him at a couple of forthcoming gigs. Together with mutual friend Thomas,  who happened to be an old school pal of mine, we formed Inside Edge, a vocal, piano, keyboard, guitar trio. At the rehearsals, Martin would bring a selection of songs he wanted to play and we would listen to them, work out an arrangement and then rehearse them.
Among the songs were a couple by an artist called Al Stewart who I had never heard of. Even his Top 40 hit from the late 70’s “Year Of The Cat” had passed me by. So straight away I was introduced to new songs while arranging and playing them.  This had been common practise when playing in the large soul band I had joined at school, where much of the repertoire of soul, blues and pop songs had already been arranged by the music teacher. However, here in Inside Edge we were working from the ground up.

Al Stewart had been part of the British folk scene in the 60’s before moving to the states in the late 70’s and becoming an established recording artist. He has since released many albums that move between pop, rock and folk with lyrics that go beyond usual love songs instead dealing with characters and events from history and a variety of other subjects.

We rehearsed “On The Border” and “Flying Sorcery” from his ‘Year Of The Cat’ album, and added them to our set. I was soon drawn into Al’s back catalogue, borrowing cassettes of concerts and very soon visiting the “S” section of various second-hand record shops to see which of his albums I could find.

Martin and I would continue performing gigs at a few pubs and clubs, incorporating more Al Stewart songs into the set including “Carol”, “Strange Girl” and “Year Of The Cat”. Martin sang and played guitar while I played keyboards along with midi sequenced backing tracks.  Usually the idea of performing covers is so the audience has something familiar to listen to. However, we were playing covers of songs that were actually quite obscure in the main so we may as well have been playing original material, which we did as well.

In 1994, Al did a tour of the UK with Peter White, who had been musical director on a few of Al’s earlier albums. We went to see Al’s show in Leeds and now having become very familiar with his songs, I was quite excited to be seeing the great man perform them live. This was, however, only an acoustic show. After hearing his previous concerts with a full band I would have liked to have seen a similar set up for this tour. But with Al and Peter’s guitar playing being very full, rich and energetic, it sounded so good there was no room to complain.  I continued to catch Al on tour over the next few years in places such as Bradford, Leeds, Hebden Bridge, London and  Croydon, where he performed either solo or with one other guitarist. The songs, his performance style and his on stage patter were all first class and made for a great concert each time.  

In 2006, Martin and I went to Al’s 60th birthday concert at the Barbican in London. This was to be a special evening featuring some special guests including Peter White contributing piano and guitar for a few songs. By the final song, “Roads To Moscow” there were around eight performers on stage including guitarists, bass player, piano player and backing singers. It sounded fantastic. By that time, I had accepted the fact that he would probably never tour with a full band line up, and this ‘acoustic ensemble’ was probably the closest I would get.
That was the last time I saw Al perform and though I’ve missed subsequent tours, I have always intended to try and catch him again. While recently visiting Al’s website I saw he was coming back to the UK this year for a tour with guitarist Dave Nachmanoff.   I figured it would be good to see him play again and had a look to see if he was doing any gigs closer to where I lived.
And then I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Among the listing of acoustic shows around the country, there was one listing different from the others for a show at the Royal Albert Hall in October. It is to be Al performing the “Year Of The Cat” album in full….. with a band. A favourite artist performing a favourite album in a favourite venue … with a full band line up led by musical director, Peter White.
Now there has been many a gig I have regretted missing over the years and I just couldn’t have this one on that list. So now I have a ticket I will be spending the next few months feeling the anticipation building up.

This blog could have just been me sharing news I was going to see Al Stewart in concert this October and he was someone I liked a lot and that was that.  But the context of the show, and where it sits in my musical history with Al, I felt was worth noting…  if only in just a few lines of text.

"Year Of The Cat" 1977 performance

"On The Border" 2001 performance

"Roads To Moscow" 2013 performance