Al Stewart

Live Review | Sheffield City Hall | Review by Allan Wilkinson

When I first saw the notices for Al Stewart’s latest tour, Back to the Bedsit, I made the assumption that the Scots-born singer-songwriter would be revisiting his debut 1967 LP Bedsitter Images in full, or if not in full, then perhaps at least half of the material from it would be included. Driving down the M18 tonight I was clearly excited at the prospect of this and began to ponder how three musicians, however well prepared, would tackle some of those complex arrangements that made the album so memorable. Well, it’s happened before and I’m sure it will happen again, I got it all fantastically wrong and tonight the album was represented by only two songs, “Bedsitter Images” and “Clifton in the Rain”. If any album from Stewart’s back catalogue was being celebrated tonight, it was probably the 1976 LP Year of the Cat, which was remembered by the inclusion of no less than seven songs; after all it was Al Stewart’s best selling album to date. Another assumption I made (there’s a pattern developing here), although in all fairness I could swear I saw it advertised as such, was that the concert was to actually take place in the Ballroom deep beneath the City Hall complex and not the assumed Memorial Hall tucked away at the back of the main hall, which has the feel of a stuffy lecture theatre rather than a concert hall. So on that score, I was pretty relieved. Spacious and grand, the Ballroom’s seating area, flanked by several large imposing pillars, soon filled to capacity as Dave Nachmanoff took to the stage to open the show. Nachmanoff, the diminutive singer-songwriter originally from North Virginia, now based in California, gave himself a grand introduction “Ladies and gentlemen, from Davis, California, please welcome Dr Dave Nachmanoff” before launching into the first of three solo songs, “I’m Just Not That Guy”. Nachmanoff’s short set served as a warm-up for the main event, as the singer enthusiastically urged the audience to think of tonight as a Saturday night rather than the midweek. The songwriter continued by recalling the day he met Elizabeth Cotton at the age of ten in his song “Kindred Spirits”, with its finger-picked “Freight Train” coda, before finishing his solo spot with another self-penned song “Fragile Thing”. With equal enthusiasm to his own introduction, Nachmanoff introduced his long standing friend, whereupon Al Stewart took his rightful position centre stage. The stage set was sparsely decorated with a plain black backdrop, which emphasised further the whiteness of Stewart’s already spotless open-collared shirt. Fresh from his appearance at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards at the Royal Albert Hall in London, where he picked up one of the two Lifetime Achievement Awards (the other one going to Ry Cooder), Al seemed relaxed and fairly casual about his return to the Sheffield venue. Rather than the folk/rock troubadour of yore, the 71 year-old Stewart looked for all intents and purposes like he might have just popped out from a corporate boardroom to cool off, before going back into the meeting to make some important decisions. Close your eyes though and the sound of the 20 year-old folk troubadour returned as if those years hadn’t passed. Opening with “House of Clocks”, a comparatively recent song, the voice was immediately recognisable as the man who gave us some of the most memorable songs of the bedsit era. Accompanied by some of Nachmanoff more frantic Spanish guitar fills, Stewart strummed through one fine song after the other, including “Bedsitter Images” and “In Brooklyn”, from the Love Chronicles album. Between the songs, Stewart regaled the audience with anecdotal stories, casually dropping such names as Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, who he once roadied for whilst lost in New York City, together with Marvin Prestwyck, the assumed name of Richard Thompson, who appeared with the rest of Fairport Convention, again on the Love Chronicles album. With no less than nineteen studio albums under his belt, Stewart’s broad repertoire was kept pretty much to the earlier days, hence the Back to the Bedsit reference. It was Al himself who introduced to the stage his old buddy and second guest guitarist of the evening, Tim Renwick, as the man behind many of the albums in the early days and also the guitarist from the Sutherland Brothers and Quiver, whose instantly recognisable guitar style brought back memories of those early days. With three songs from the Year of the Cat period on the bounce, “Flying Sorcery”, “Sand in Your Shoes” and “On The Border”, Stewart concluded the first set with the title song from his 1978 album Time Passages, comparing the opening few bars of the song to The Who’s “Substitute”. The second set began with more solo songs courtesy of Dave Nachmanoff, including “Midnight Sea”, “All Too Human” and finally “Temptation”, before Stewart returned with the folksy “Clifton in the Rain”, one of the most charming songs from the Bedsitter era, whilst citing Bert Jansch as a major influence at the time in his introduction. The brief “Small Fruit Song” was tagged on to the end almost as a coda, which featured some fine guitar accompaniment courtesy of Nachmanoff. More Year of the Cat songs were to follow one after the other, “One Stage Before”, “Midas Shadow” and “Broadway Hotel”, a romantic song which saw Stewart inviting the audience to get up close and personal for the duration, before delighting this particular reviewer at least with a reading of “Old Admirals” from his Past, Present and Future set. Bravely tackling the twenty words per second “Soho (Needless to Say)”, Stewart ventured into uneasy territory yet pulled it off relatively easily with the aid of Nachmanoff, who was there with a safety net should he need it. Stewart returned one final time to his platinum album Year of the Cat with the title song, the only number tonight to receive an applause during the intro. It was also slightly surprising to hear a couple of improvised snippets of “Hall of the Mountain King” and Syd Barrett’s iconic “Interstellar Overdrive” included in the songs’ coda. Al reminded the audience that his guitarist once toured with that particular band glancing over at Renwick and pointing out that “he’s still got the Pink Floyd tour bag”. After thunderous applause and heavily applied stomping feet, the three musicians returned to deliver the one final encore song, “Carol” from the Modern Times period, which “gives the guitar players the chance of a bit of a workout”. Despite arriving at the venue fully expecting a return to Bedsitter Images, I left satisfied that I had joined and taken part in a fully realised wander down Memory Lane, packed with memorable and timeless songs from one of the noted legends of our time.