One of the distinct advantages of being over 50 is that you don’t give a damn whether you’re doing something ‘cool’ or not. Which is why, as a belated birthday present from MKS, I could spend yesterday evening at the Royal Albert Hall in the company of a large number of other 50- and 60-year-olds (plus a surprising and very welcome scattering of teenagers) enjoying a concert by the decidedly uncool Al Stewart.
Let’s backtrack a bit. Having been taught guitar by his neighbour Robert Fripp, and playing in the backing group for Tony Blackburn, Al Stewart was one of that generation of bedsitter bards who emerged out of the English folk scene in the mid-60s. At the time he was writing ballads about bedsits and underage sex (‘but I’ve not finished school yet she said as she got into bed’, Swiss Cottage Manoeuvres) and wrote, I think, the first ‘pop’ song to use the word ‘fuck’ (Love Chronicles, 1968). Naturally enough I started buying his albums the moment I discovered them. I first saw him perform in the winter of 1971/2, playing solo in a lecture theatre at the New University of Ulster (at the time that was the only room on campus capable of staging anything like a concert). He was skinny with a narrow, sharp-featured face enveloped in long, tangled hair and he wore the hippy uniform of tight denims and furs. Afterwards I walked back to my digs along the freezing Portstewart seafront belting out: ‘it got to feel less like fucking and more like making love’.
It turned out that with the Troubles starting up, Al Stewart was the only UK act who would come over to entertain the students in Ulster, so I saw him both the next two years as well, and then at least once at Warwick, and then several times after I moved back to Manchester, and a few more times since moving south. I’ve long since lost count, but last night’s concert was clearly into double figures. By contrast I’ve seen Richard Thompson three times, the Pogues and Springsteen and Peter Gabriel twice each, and most everyone else just once. Now, 35 years later (35 years?!) his face is round and polished, the short grey hair has retreated from his forehead and there is a neat round bald patch on the crown, and he wears generously-cut trousers and oxford shirts. Doesn’t stop him presenting a bloody good concert though.
The tickets advertised support, but in fact he had a bunch of excellent musicians with him, a couple of whom got to do solo spots during the show. He started with just him and a guitarist, David Nichikoff, who apparently has quite a few solo albums out. He’s a short, round figure whose guitar playing is excellent, though I wasn’t struck on his singing when he did his solo. Then, as the evening wore on, other musicians joined them. A short, middle-aged flute player who seemed to be imitating a stork as he high-stepped about the stage (is it something to do with the flute? I kept thinking of Ian Anderson standing on one leg). A bassist who had been in Matthews Southern Comfort; an accordionist/drummer with the unlikely name of Peter Hamilton; a girl singer, Gaby Young, with startling red hair who must have lowered the average age on stage by a good 10 years, and a voice that was richer and darker and stronger than any of the men performing (her first album is just out, I don’t know what her song writing is like but I’d be interested to hear what she does with that voice). And then there was the lead guitarist, Laurence Jaber, formerly of Wings, who played a miked-up acoustic guitar and made it sound like an electric guitar. His solo piece was to play Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Little Wing’ and make it sound exactly like Hendrix with all the distorts and variations in volume; a stunning display.
As for the set, it seems there is a box set out, so this was in the nature of a career retrospective. We got the overtly sexual early songs (In Brooklyn: ‘and I looked at her holding my thoughts in the palm of my hand’); we got the history songs, including the rarely-performed ten-minute ‘Roads to Moscow’ about Russian troops in the second world war; and even a couple of new songs (‘Antarctica’ sounds superb). At one point he stopped the performance to announce that Donald Rumsfeld had resigned – which got almost the biggest cheer of the night – then launched into a very pointed version of ‘Versailles’, his song about the French Revolution. The show was loud, vibrant, exhilarating, possibly the most exciting of all his shows I’ve seen. And after two hours I still had to leave well before the end to be sure of catching my last train. Just like that first concert all those years ago I walked down Exhibition Road in the rain singing: ‘Soho, needless to say, I am alone on your sheets, or am I dreaming …’
Needless to say, this morning I feel fit to write an autobiographical zombie novel – but it was worth it.
First published at LiveJournal, 9 November 2006.