A still in wonderful voice Al Stewart returned to a packed Stables – one of the smaller venues on this current tour – this time bringing along a backing band with him – Chicago’s The Empty Pockets – as well as Marc Maccisso who was a supporting saxophone and flute player on several of the songs. This has been billed as the ‘Hits and Misses Tour‘, so along with some predictable appearances there were a number of songs that made the setlist just because Al Stewart likes them. It’s maybe a comment on the Hits side being somewhat obligatory that a rarer cut might get introduced with a “What’s next? Oh – I like that one.“
Inevitably ‘Year of the Cat‘, his best selling album, made a significant appearance through the evening – with five of the twelve songs coming from that particular recording (‘Flying Sorcery‘, ‘Midas Shadow‘, ‘Broadway Hotel‘, ‘One Stage Before‘ and the title song). It did mean that there was no room for anything from excellent later albums such as ‘Famous Last Words‘ or ‘Sparks of Ancient Light‘. Opening with ‘Sirens of Titan‘, a homage to the Kurt Vonnegut novel, the sound, particularly the vocals, were a little muddy with the band overwhelming Stewart in places but this was, more or less, sorted by second song ‘Antarctica‘. A song which, Stewart explained, on the surface is about polar exploration but is actually about a girl who wouldn’t sleep with him – there is a pretty strong hint in the lyrics “I felt the chill of mystery / With one foot on your shore / And then and there resolved to go / Where no man had before”. To have flautist (and later saxophonist) Marc Maccisso emerging from the audience to join the band on stage during this song was a nice theatrical touch, adding the chilly winds of the frozen lands to the mix.
Although the band naturally allowed the music to sound more like the albums, the actual format of the gig didn’t differ too much from seeing Al Stewart acoustic – great songs interspersed with anecdotes of folk club days, forming an introduction to ‘Almost Lucy‘, and rock and roll strangeness with former flatmate Paul Simon – who apparently did quite well for himself. ‘Time Passages‘ was a superb looking to the future song with Stewart the master of the historical song declaring “I’m not the kind to live in the past / the years run too short and the days too fast / The things you lean on are things that don’t last”, and here Marc Maccisso’s saxophone made a sweet impact. If a singer is going to have but one hit single to their name then it could be worse than having ‘Year of the Cat‘ – here presented in all its dreamlike glory. On the surface it’s a pretty love song, but there’s a darker subtext with the song’s noire movie references colliding with a sudden passion, and with a narrator who portrays himself on the one hand as seduced by a strange land but at the same time knowing that he has no intention of letting this last forever.
The encore was kicked off with a definite miss – Stewart’s attempt to cash in on the Merseybeat craze led to the never recorded ‘Eight Arms‘ which is the arachnophobia of love songs as it posits the advantages of having…well, eight arms to hold onto your girl with. A slight song but it fits in well with the relaxed mood of the gig. The closer was a nod to the singer-songwriter who has really defined the modern age, a really fine take on ‘Love Minus Zero‘. If there was one real disappointment it was that the epic ‘Nostradamus‘ didn’t appear despite a fairly heavy hint that it would during the Empty Pockets short opening set. A pity, but another time perhaps.