OK. So anyone working to save Western civilization deserves a break every now and then. And this was a good one. I have been an Al Stewart fan since I picked up a copy of Past, Present and Future, Stewart’s fifth LP, in 1973. Since then I have become an avid collector of Stewart albums, noted for their lilting vocals, elegant fret work and preponderance of historical themes.
I guess its the historical songs which always grab me because there is not all that much to distinguish one Stewart melody from the next and his voice, even at age 65, still flutters above the song in that thin, fey tremolo he possessed when he was still a starry-eyed folkie sharing digs in London with Paul Simon.
But I enjoyed this concert as much for Stewart’s banter, which revolved largely around dead and forgotten presidents, than his explanations for the provenance of his songs. Accidental president Millard Fillmore became a staple of the evening, as did Franklin Pierce, William Henry Harrison( president in 1841 for only six weeks); his grandson , the humorless Benjamin Harrison; Warren G. Harding ( who once received his own song on a Stewart disc) and ‘Silent Cal,’ – Calvin Coolidge. He peppered the concert with gossip about all these men, which I, at least, appreciated since I knew almost every anecdote he told (which makes me, I guess, as a much of a historical geek as the singer himself).
But beyond that there were some lovely moments on stage. I mean, you just can’t beat that wailing sax on Year of the Cat, or the great guitar riff of Time Passages – especially in an intimate setting like McCabes in Santa Monica, since the crispness of the horn and the rolling thunder of the guitar almost lifts you off your seat. Other joyous moments came with the Django Rheinhardt- influenced Night Train to Munich (from Between the Wars) and chilled atmosphere of Antarctica ( from Last Days of the Century).
Adding to the resonance of the music were his two band mates, the scintillating guitarist Dave Nachmanoff and the multi-instrumentalist (bongos, maracas, harmonica, alto, tenor and soprano sax) Louis Marcias. The easy interplay between the three of them was quite lovely to behold.