Al Stewart

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Al Stewart: Bournemouth Pavilion

This concert was something of a homecoming for singer-songwriter Al Stewart. As a local teenage beat musician Al used to play a regular Tuesday night residency at the Pavilion. In those distant days he playing lead guitar with The Sabres whose singer Tony Blackburn (yup THAT Tony Blackburn) used to rip off his gold lame jacket and writhe histrionically on the stage, warming up the crowd for headliner Zoot Money. 

Al was 17 back then. He’s 71 now and has enjoyed a stellar international career that really took off after he found new words for an old song that he had penned about tragic fellow Bournmouthian, the comedian Tony Hancock.

It had been called Foot of the Stage but no one in the music business was much interested in his tale of the doomed and suicidal Hancock. Then one day he saw a book on Oriental astrology which, combined with memories of a favourite movie, Casablanca, gave him the lyric for The Year of the Cat.  

He’d already made his mark on the music scene but that one song catapulted him to a whole other level. It was the break he’d been looking foir for years. 

  After Bournemouth Al had moved to London, become one of the darlings of the 1960s folk revival, played all the right clubs and hung out with the movers and shakers of the semi-underground, post-beatnik  scene. He'd even shared a flat with visiting American folkie Paul Simon who, despite having already written Homeward Bound and Sounds of Silence, was essentially penniless.

In fact a desperate Simon offered his flatmate the chance to buy 50 per cent of his music publishing rights. He wanted £5,000, not a remotely achievable sum for the young Mr Stewart.

These days Al chuckles wryly when he ponders what could have been. Music business insiders estimate that had he, or anyone else for that matter, invested £5,000 in a half share of the early 1960s Paul Simon song catalogue they’d probably be sitting on a £10 million plus fortune today.

Not that Al has done too badly. He lives in the US with a lovely wife, an impressive wine cellar and an enviable reputation as a writer of erudite and worldly-wise  songs. His own back catalogue of some 20 albums proves the point admirably. 

Right now he’s back in the UK and out on the road with his Back to the Bedsit tour, playing stripped-back acoustic versions of songs from the past 50 years.

The title references the fact that Al priginally launched his recording career with the 1967 album Bedsitter Images, the title song of which was his opener at the Bournemouth concert.  Astonishingly the show was his first at the town’s Pavilion since 1962. One more Tuesday night after 55 years.

The early days as a bedsit troubadour provided introspective and soul-searching songs for young fans experiencing the raw excitement and misery of living away from home for the first time - cold beans, no money for the meter - it all seemed such a very long time ago

In those days Al Stewart’s style was that of hippy from Central Casting. Cascading shoulder length locks, flowery shirts and Afghan coats. Today, with his neatly trimmed grey hair he looks positively business-like. Slim and well-groomed in his crisply ironed shirt and expensive looking formal trousers, he could be a retired doctor, dentist or lawyer.

He certainly doesn’t look a singer songwriter from the days of flower-power and psychedelia, at least not in the way that most people imagine. And there we have it. Imagination is the key to these songs and once Al starts singing all those superficial trappings are forgotten

With guitar accompaniment from long-time collaborator Dave Nachmanoff and one-time Sutherland Brothers and Quiver guitarist Tim Renwick, Al plundered his own back catalogue with joyous abandon.

The subtlety and dexterity of the acoustic backing, enhanced by percussion, flute  and sax from guest Marc Macisso, helped emphasise the strength of his lyrics.

Songs like On the Border, Night Train to Munich, Palace of Versailles and Old Admirals displayed the intelligence, sense of place and history at the core of his work. 

He may be a singer-songwriter but essentially he’s simply a writer. If he wasn’t writing songs I am certain that Al Stewart would be writing poems, plays, history books, anythin, but he’d certainly be writing. He clearly loves words and after a lifetime of writing songs full of observations of places, characters and events, e’s vey good at using them indeed.

Music provides a good and much loved platform for his work but I get the sense that Al, though confident and highly capable, is not a natural performer. He may actually be happier listening to others. He is certainly the only headlining singer and guitarist I have heard ask the sound-desk to turn the (not excessive) volume of  his instrument down so that he can better enjoy the music of his guest guitarists.

Jeremy Miles

© Jeremy Miles 2017