Al Stewart – The Grateful Dread Discography

It’s a gigantic pyramid, working up to fame with ‘Year of the Cat,’ then coming back to where I came in. It’s not a bad life. You can cast the odd, wistful glance in the direction of Elton John, but then of course you have to put up with being Elton John.

Not long ago, Al Stewart was asked about his long, storied music career, which peaked (in terms of US pop-chart acclaim) in the mid-1970s – the above is his witty reply. For Stewart’s fans and devotees, his has not been a bad life at all: The artist’s deep, rich, peak-heavy discography – the 40th anniversary of his first recorded solo release comes Aug. 12 – features scads of inspired music, thoughtful lyrics and ideas and a wealth of stories from the mind of an imaginative man with a perennial eye on the past, present and future.

For those in need of an introduction to the folk-rock troubadour’s huge catalog, those interested in learning what he has done beyond his big hits – those who could use a reminder of the man’s singular voice and prolific ideas – here we will explore all of Stewart’s official releases in brief. The hope is that you will give his music a spin and expose yourself to a highly literate, intelligent artist whose carefully crafted works can amuse, enlighten, enthrall and provoke.


“The Elf” b/w “Turn into Earth” (Decca, 1966) – After an unpleasant stint in public school, young Alastair Stewart turned to scribbling poetry and expressing himself via the guitar. (Robert Fripp was an early teacher.) As a teen, the Scottish native began playing in dancehall bands in his hometown of Bournemouth, England. His dreams of making music took him to London in 1965. There, in the big city, rock and folk-rock music ruled the scene. These were the days of Lonnie Donegan‘s skiffle and Pentangle Bert Jansch‘s folk songs, the Beatles and the British invasion and swinging London. Stewart landed gigs as compere (host) at the cool Soho folk clubs Bunjies and Les Cousins; he began performing his own songs before long. In 1966, he landed a deal with Decca Records that gave the world “The Elf,” a twee ditty that uses magical creatures to reflect the life of a Bournemouth songwriter. The single (which featured a pre-Zep Jimmy Page on guitar) didn’t sell well – just under 500 copies, according to legend. The B-side is, according to Stewart, an unmemorable tune written by the Yardbirds’ Paul Samwell-Smith. “The Elf” is available on To Whom It May Concern, a retrospective of early Stewart recordings.


Bedsitter Images (CBS, 1967) – The next year, Stewart’s manager/producer, folk-club impresario Roy Guest, negotiated a new deal for his client with CBS Records. The songwriter says the signing was less about his skills or marketability than it was about business: “I was only signed to CBS in 1967 because my manager had another band they wanted to sign called the Piccadilly Line,” he told Record Collector magazine earlier this year. “CBS didn’t want me, but I ended up making six albums for them.” The first was Bedsitter Images, a collection of tunes that reflected on life in London for a struggling, young musician striking out to make his way in the world. The Sinfonia of London was hired to flesh out the accompaniment to Stewart’s lyrics and guitar. Initially, the chamber orchestra was a great way to get attention: A live concert of BI‘s songs took place at London’s in November, 1967, and brought the fledgling artist lots of media notice, along with the attention of young, university-age Londoners who could identify with the tales of Stewart’s hardscrabble artist’s life and his youthful reminiscences. Stewart eventually expressed discontent with the orchestral takeover of his debut album, which he came to consider woefully overproduced. The album was remixed without the Sinfonia and rereleased with some new tracks as The First Album (Bedsitter Images) in 1970. Neither version was released officially in the US, but as with all of Stewart’s non-American releases (his first, third and fourth LPs), they can be found as imports or through collectors and in various compilations.

Tracks:

  1. Bedsitter Images
  2. Swiss Cottage Manoeuvres
  3. The Carmichaels
  4. Scandinavian Girl
  5. Pretty Golden Hair
  6. Denise At 16
  7. Samuel, Oh How You’ve Changed!
  8. Cleave To Me
  9. A Long Way Down From Stephanie
  10. Ivich
  11. Beleeka Doodle Day

(In the remixed version, the gorgeous “Clifton in the Rain” and Mike Heron’s “Lover Man” are swapped in for “Scandinavian Girl,” “Cleave to Me” and “Pretty Golden Hair.”)


Love Chronicles (CBS, 1969) – Stewart’s second LP cemented his place in the hearts of London’s folk- and college sets. UK music weekly Melody Maker‘s Folk Album of the Year offers listeners the sublime and the ridiculous. The confessional song style that populated Bedsitter Images is back: About half of the album focuses on Stewart’s life, friends, and gossip. Sex too – “In Brooklyn” recounts Stewart’s go-round with an American girl and, most notoriously, the title track covers every love connection the young musician had made to that point, starting with the ethereal Stephanie (whom we met on BI) and finishing with Mandi, the winsome lass snuggling with Al on LC‘s rear cover and who was to become Al’s tragic love obsession for a while. The song is also notable for unleashing a controversy over its use of the phrase “getting laid” and the F word (Stewart contrasted “fucking” to the act of “making love,” which, naturally, is quite a different thing). Under pressure from his record label, the artist refused to bow to censorship: “This was a personal song which was written for Mandi,” he said in 1970, “and I’m not going to change the lyrics for anything in the world.”

The best part of the album, however, is the rest of the material: Stewart begins looking beyond himself and shows a real knack for seeing through the eyes of others and speaking with their voices. Observational songs like the masterful “The Ballad of Mary Foster” demonstrate his deep humanity and his respect and empathy for people and the lives they live. Consider the nimbly worded “Life and Life Only,” which interweaves several storylines – Stewart proves himself the Robert Altman of popular music. (Or Richard Curtis, perhaps – the final verse is the sonic equivalent of the closing scene of Love Actually. No, definitely Altman.) Meet one of the characters: “Mr. Willoughby / Whose only luxury / Is the sugar in his tea / Teaches history / At High Worthington School…”

Stewart’s ability to see and value people – to describe them and their situations and to point out connections that exist between us all, regardless of our nationality and station in life – is one that will lead him to lyrical gold.

And then there is the music, a haunting, compelling bit of guitar-fueled folk-rock that reminded many of art-folk outfit Fairport Convention: LC, also produced by Roy Guest, features another set of performances by Jimmy Page along with the appearance of three interestingly monikered artists: guitarists Marvyn Prestwick and Simon Breckenridge and drummer Martyn Francis. In reality, the three are, respectively, Richard Thompson, Simon Nicol and Martin Lamble – Fairport members who performed incognito at the time because of contractual difficulties.

Tracks:

  1. In Brooklyn
  2. Old Compton Street Blues
  3. The Ballad of Mary Foster
  4. Life and Life Only
  5. You Should Have Listened to Al
  6. Love Chronicles


Zero She Flies (CBS, 1970) – Stewart’s third album, a “stark” collection of previously unreleased Stewart compositions, followed in the footsteps of its predecessors in mining the personal life of Al and his friends. Some memorable songs are featured, however, among them: the plaintive, deceptively simple “A Small Fruit Song,” the rocking “Electric Los Angeles Sunset” and, most importantly, “Manuscript,” which was Stewart’s first foray into using historical themes, something that would become the norm as years passed.

ZSF was never released in the US; many of its songs can be found on To Whom It May Concern.

Tracks:

  1. My Enemies Have Sweet Voices
  2. A Small Fruit Song
  3. Gethsemane, Again
  4. Burbling
  5. Electric Los Angeles Sunset
  6. Manuscript
  7. Black Hill
  8. Anna
  9. Room of Roots
  10. Zero She Flies


Orange – (CBS, 1972) More of Al’s musical confessions or, as I call this one, Tales of Al and Mandi. This album covers the heartbreaking dissolution of the couple’s affair, and while the story isn’t pretty, songs like “I’m Falling,” the wrenching “Night on the Fourth of May” and “The News from Spain,” for which tissue is required, are at once too painful to hear, too compelling to resist, completely relatable and soulshatteringly gorgeous. In a 1970 interview with Melody Maker, Stewart said that after Mandi dumped him, he suffered a year-long bout of writer’s block.

The album features strong performances by guitarist Tim Renwick (catch the Quiver axeman’s Spanish action on “Song Out of Clay”), Brinsley Schwarz on the 12-string, and Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman.

Orange was never released in the US; many of its songs can be found on To Whom It May Concern.

Tracks:

  1. You Don’t Even Know Me
  2. Amsterdam
  3. Songs Out Of Clay
  4. The News From Spain
  5. I Don’t Believe You (by Bob Dylan)
  6. Once An Orange, Always An Orange
  7. I’m Falling
  8. Night of the Fourth Of May

Past, Present and Future (CBS, 1973; released in the US on Janus Records) – For many Stewartphiles, the magic really gets started with this LP. As the title would indicate, this is the first project where most of the artist’s attention is focused on the world and the people living within it. History (and how it affects the lives of the powerful and the not-so-powerful) takes center stage on tracks like “Old Admirals,” “The Last Day Of June 1934,” “Post World War Two Blues,” and two of his classics, the stately “Roads To Moscow” and “Nostradamus,” an epic piece that predicts the history of the world.

Produced by John Anthony, this LP moved Stewart into more verdant musical and thematic landscapes, vistas he made tangible through his use of rich language and references from the arts, literature and past and current affairs. PPF shows the songwriter’s descriptive abilities are becoming even sharper – see how “Soho (Needless to Say)” puts one right in the middle of London’s arty, seedy red-light district:

Rainstorm, brainstorm, faces in the maelstrom
Huddle by the puddles in the shadows where the drains run
Hot dogs, wet clogs clicking up the sidewalk
Disappearing into the booze shop
Rainbow queues stand down by the news stand, waiting for the late show
Pinball, sin hall, minds in free fall
Chocolate-coloured ladies making eyes through the smoke pall…

Musically, Tim Renwick and Rick Wakeman make welcome repeat performances, Peter Wood provides accompaniment on accordion and organ and we are introduced to vocalist Krysia Kocjan, who offers the transcendent descant vocal on “Roads to Moscow.” The singer turns out to be more than a mere shot in the dark – she’ll appear again – memorably – as part of Stewart’s backing band.

Tracks:

  1. Old Admirals
  2. Soho (Needless to Say)
  3. The Last Day of June 1934
  4. Post World War II Blues
  5. Roads to Moscow
  6. Terminal Eyes
  7. Nostradamus


Modern Times (CBS, 1975; released in the US on Janus) – Naturally, I’ve met many an Al Stewart fan over the decades; most tell me that this was their first favorite Stewart album. Not surprisingly, this record established the erstwhile bedsit bard as an American musical cult figure – MT sold more than a million copies and cracked the Billboard Top 30.

This album was also the first helmed by Alan Parsons, the brilliant and innovative musician (he plays flute), producer and engineer (he might say “recording director”) who gained notice for his work on the Beatles’ Abbey Road and for working with artists like Ambrosia, the Hollies, Pink Floyd and his own Alan Parsons Project. Parsons took Stewart’s folk-rock and added jazz sensibilities to it, making it more commercially attractive to the mainstream US pop market.

Again, Stewart works with a loose theme – modern times, natch – and presents a collection of still-evocative tunes including “Carol,” the story of a fast girl in trouble; the rollicking “Apple Cider Reconstitution;” the sweeping, regret-filled title track; Stewart’s homage to Kurt Vonnegut’s sci-fi novel The Sirens of Titan and “The Dark and the Rolling Sea,” a moody piece that tells a tale of high-seas suspense. Guitarists Tim Renwick and Simon Nicol and pianist Peter Wood use their instruments in service to Stewart again, wonderfully, and there is lots of lovely color provided by gorgeous string arrangments by Parsons and gifted multiinstrumentalist Andrew Powell.

Tracks:

  1. Carol
  2. Soho (Needless to Say)
  3. What’s Going On?
  4. Not the One
  5. Next Time
  6. Apple Cider Reconstitution
  7. The Dark and the Rolling Sea
  8. Modern Times (Dave Mudge co-wrote)


Year of the Cat – (RCA, 1976; released in the US on Janus) This, Stewart’s first platinum album, was the one that cemented Stewart in the annals of pop-music history (the album hit Billboard’s Top 5) and made him a huge international star. Producer Alan Parsons’ formula from Modern Times, mixing Stewart’s historically themed folk-rock pieces with jazz conventions (like the unforgettable Phil Kenzie saxophone break in the title song) and absolute gorgeousness (Peter Wood’s heartstoppingly lovely “YOTC” piano intro), worked like the proverbial charm when it came to electrifying music listeners and encouraging them to part with their dollars and pounds.

Why? Yes, the combination of the sophisticated Parsons touch with Stewart’s folk-rock foundation piqued interest, but in the end, Stewart won appreciators through his unforgettable stories and songs: the arousing title track, the sad “Broadway Hotel,” and “Flying Sorcery,” the first of Stewart’s songs to focus on the exploits of pilots. [See my recent interview with the artist for some background on his flying songs.] At the time, Billboard hailed YOTC for its “exceptionally well-arranged songs that are progressive without being pretentious. … This set was recorded at the Abbey Road Studios in London, and through heavy use of strings has a symphonic, almost classical beauty.”

Extremely noteworthy is the first appearance of guitarist Peter White, then a sessionist hired to play Spanish style guitar for the swirling, intriguing Top 20 hit “On the Border”; his long, fruitful collaboration with Stewart began on Year of the Cat.

Tracks:

  1. Lord Grenville
  2. On the Border
  3. Sand in Your Shoes
  4. If It Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave It
  5. Flying Sorcery
  6. Broadway Hotel
  7. One Stage Before
  8. Year of the Cat (Peter Wood co-wrote)


Time Passages (Arista/US, RCA/UK, 1978) – This LP continued the Stewart-Parsons partnership, proven so profitable by Year of the Cat‘s success, and to good effect: It hit the Billboard Top 10 and produced two hit singles, the mellow, reflective title track and the undeniably catchy “Song on the Radio.” As is obvious from its title, the album’s theme covers time, be it time running out (“Man for All Seasons”, “End of the Day”), the discovery that it’s time to take action (“Almost Lucy”) or reconstruct oneself (the breezy “Valentina Way”), or recalling a time gone by (“The Palace of Versailles,” “Timeless Skies”).

Musically, we see (hear) the return of Stewart’s old-school posse (Tim Renwick, Peter Wood, Andrew Powell), appearances by notables like drummer Jeff Porcaro and steel guitarist Al Perkins, and the nucleus of what will become Shot in the Dark, Stewart’s early 1980s backing band: Peter White, vocalist Krysia Kocjan (now using the surname Kristianne) and bassist Robin Lamble.

Tracks:

  1. Time Passages
  2. Valentina Way
  3. Life in Dark Water
  4. A Man for All Seasons
  5. Almost Lucy
  6. The Palace of Versailles
  7. Timeless Skies
  8. Song on the Radio
  9. End of the Day (Peter White co-wrote; reportedly this song inspired his aspiration to follow a solo-artist path, something he eventually did, and quite successfully).


24 PCarrots (Arista/US, RCA/UK, 1980) – The theme became “change.” Busy as Alan Parsons became with his own successful Project, Al Stewart found himself with a record due and without a producer. With a new decade looming and a new album to create, a new challenge for Stewart seemed timely: He took on the mantle himself, co-producing with recording engineer Chris Desmond. A new attitude showed itself too: While the songwriter’s sense of whimsy and love for wordplay have been hinted at on past releases (come on – “The Elf”?), never before has it been so up-front as on the disc’s cover, which features Xed out parrots and a P in its title replaced respectively by bright orange carrots and the letter C. Obviously, something is different – and much of what’s changed is the sound. Stewart is in collaboration mode – 24PC features four Stewart-White tunes and it’s apparent that his new backing band (Peter White and his Shot in the Dark mates, who now include guitarist Adam Yurman and saxophonist Bryan Savage), supplemented by various session players (among them alternating drummers Jeff Porcaro, Russ Kunkel and Steve Chapman [now Stewart’s manager]) contributed to the album’s harder-rocking sound.

That isn’t to say that everything changed: Yes, 24PC‘s sound is harder, but it’s in no danger of resembling Metallica. This is still rock music played most elegantly. The theme may be “change,” but the topic is still explored through historically based songs (including the epic “Murmansk Run/Ellis Island”) and musings on modern times and relationships. And while the record is a tad less satisfying on the whole than previous Stewart classics, it is most assuredly superior to much of what was released in 1980 – and of what is released today. The quality of the musicianship is as high as expected, though listening today, some of the bright-sounding production – though very well done – feels a bit sterile. That is not because of the songs, by and large: the tense, ever-moving “Running Man,” the hilarious rocker “Mondo Sinistro,” the pensive “Optical Illusion” and the resplendent hit “Midnight Rocks” (which boasts a chorus that soars on swoon-worthy harmonies) help make what turned out to be the final album of Stewart’s rock-star period such delicious punishment.

Tracks:

  1. Running Man
  2. Midnight Rocks
  3. Constantinople
  4. Merlin’s Time
  5. Mondo Sinistro
  6. Murmansk Run/Ellis Island
  7. Rocks in the Ocean
  8. Paint by Numbers
  9. Optical Illusion


Indian Summer/Live (Arista/US, RCA/UK, 1982) – This interesting collection offers songs performed at the Roxy in Los, LA Angeles in 1981. Called Indian Summer/Live in the US, the British version, pictured left, is known as Live at the Roxy, L.A. ’81); 2002’s Al Stewart Live on Razor and Tie features much of the same material.

The live release came at an interesting time – during the initial transition between Stewart’s Elton John years and his post-stardom career. Intentional or not, it offers us a pause to appreciate works gone by – and it’s a welcome souvenir of the live Al Stewart concert experience, complete with his extemporaneous and wildly entertaining stage patter (check out his homage to Clarence “Frogman” Henry). In addition to the live tracks, which feature cuts from Past, Present and Future through 24 PCarrots, there are also brand-new studio songs on the 1982 American release (which eventually show up on new CD reissues of 24 PC). My recommendation: the exotic and thought-provoking “The World Goes to Riyadh.”

Tracks:

  1. Here In Angola
  2. Pandora (Peter White co-wrote)
  3. Indian Summer
  4. Delia’s Gone
  5. Princess Olivia
  6. Running Man (live)
  7. Time Passages (live)
  8. Merlin’s Time (live)
  9. If It Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave It
  10. Roads to Moscow
  11. Nostradamus 1 / World Goes To Riyadh / Nostradamus 2
  12. Soho (Needless To Say)
  13. On The Border
  14. Valentina Way
  15. Clarence Frogman Henry
  16. Year Of The Cat

The success of Year of the Cat, Time Passages and 24 CParrots gave Al Stewart a brand-new lifestyle. He was living in Los Angeles now and was treated like a huge star, a major deal. Which he was: He’d sold millions of records and had headlined major sold-out concerts (as documented in Indian Summer and Live at the Roxy ’81). In the 1970s he had even found a new hobby that continues to be a passion for him: wine collecting. Life was good. But then came the lawyers.

 


Russians and Americans (Passport/US, RCA/UK, 1984) – By the mid-1980s, the mainstream pop-music world had pretty much had its fill of singer-songwriters. The record buying public had moved past trends that started in the 1970s – we had survived punk, had seen new wave turn old and had packed away spandex. And we had our MTV – consequently, many music consumers put music’s superficial aspects over artistic ones. The music business, on the other hand, was becoming more corporate. True, money had always been the thing for the money men behind the star maker machinery. In previous decades, though, some sort of love for music existed in the hearts of most of those in the field. This was becoming less and less the case. The record labels saw a public in search of fluff – and they were (and still are) all too happy to give (and tell) the public what it thinks it wants.

In this climate, Stewart released R&A, an album that takes on contemporary life while continuing to look at yesterday through modern eyes. The album, produced by Michael Flicker (though European editions add that Peter White and Rolf Henneman offered production assistance), shows the artist still collaborating with White and the Shot in the Dark crew and with many of the old crew (Andrew Powell, Steve Chapman, Phil Kenzie). A newcomer was backing singer Marcy Levy, who toured with Bob Seger, co-wrote Eric Clapton’s 1977 hit “Lay Down Sally” and, under the name Marcella Detroit, was due to become part of Shakespear’s Sister in the late 1980s.

Interestingly, the sound and feel of the record are quite reminiscent of Modern Times, and while R&A is not at the top of the list of greatest Al Stewart recordings, there are some fine songs here: the resigned “Accident on 3rd Street” (he sounds so detached from the words he is singing that he renders the news the song delivers even more chilling that it otherwise might be); “The Candidate,” inspired by Stewart’s love for American political party primary campaigns; “Cafe Society,” a look into the empty lives of the rich and richer; and a cover of the old chestnut “1-2-3.” If you’re familiar with dairy ads running in the US, you probably think of this bouncy number and a shiny, happy tune. Listen to Stewart’s take on the John Madora – David White – Leonard Borisoff composition: By changing some of the lyrics, he imbues the song with a new cynicism while offering listeners a cautionary tale:

The hard part is learning about it,
The hard part is breaking through to the truth.
The hard part is learning to doubt
What you read, what you hear, what you see on the news.

If Stewart sounds cynical on the album, it’s no wonder. Success can breed tension – and much of it was brewing behind the scenes as Shot in the Dark members wanted to pursue their own musical journey (Stewart’s backing band released its own LP to disappointing sales, in 1982). That tension could not have served the singer well – he admits to being uncomfortable in recording studios. In addition, there were the aforementioned lawyers. R&A was released in the US on Passport Records, which was aligned with Jem Records. The firm was caught up in a huge bankruptcy situation and many Passport recordings that appeared at this time were kept from being released in a timely fashion. By the time Russians and Americans finally saw release (with precious little promotion provided), mainstream radio and most record buyers didn’t notice.

Tracks:

    The One That Got Away (Peter White co-wrote)

  1. Rumors of War (Peter White co-wrote)
  2. Night Meeting
  3. Accident on 3rd Street
  4. Strange Girl
  5. Russians and Americans
  6. Cafe Society
  7. One, Two, Three (John Madora, David White & Leonard Borisoff)
  8. The Candidate
  9. Lori Don’t Go Right Now (Peter White co-wrote; on UK release only)
  10. The Gypsy and the Rose

Best of Al Stewart (RCA/UK, 1985; Arista/US, 1986) – What does one expect? Stewart makes his labels millions. Legal troubles happen. Stewart is sans record deal. Former labels pimp his catalog for filthy lucre. It’s the music business. In any event, this slight recap of Stewart’s rock-star years is a fine introduction for people who only know Alastair Stewart as the infant son of a former soccer player named Rod. Points and this writer’s deepest thanks to the team that opted to include YOTC‘s stately “Lord Grenville” on the Stateside edition.

Tracks: (UK release)

  1. Year of the Cat
  2. On the Border
  3. If It Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave It
  4. Time Passages
  5. Almost Lucy
  6. Merlin’s Time
  7. Valentina Way
  8. Running Man
  9. Here in Angola
  10. Roads to Moscow (live)
  11. Rumours of War

Tracks: (US release)

  1. Time Passages
  2. Running Man
  3. Delia’s Gone
  4. Roads to Moscow
  5. Song on the Radio
  6. Midnight Rocks
  7. Lord Grenville
  8. Merlin’s Time
  9. Nostradamus 1/World Goes to Riyadh/Nostradamus (live)2
  10. On the Border (live)
  11. Year of the Cat

Last Days of the Century (Enigma, 1988) – The view of the future on the album cover – along with the synth-heavy production by Joe Chiccarelli – offers a clue that Stewart, at the turn of the last century, was considering the changing world. The songs offer views of change from the past (“Fields of France,” about a pilot’s tragic journey that forever changes his life and that of his waiting true love; “Antarctica,” which references Shackleton and Scott’s journey to that untouched frozen land in griping about a “frosty woman who refused to sleep with me,” as he has explained during onstage patter) and present (“License to Steal,” where an angry troubadour tells us how he really feels about attorneys, and the sensual “Where Are They Now?,” where Al reconnects with lost love Mandi [yes, they ended up as friends; I’ve met her, and it’s easy to see the reason for his youthful obsession].

The Stewart faithful purchased the album, of course, but the mainstream had moved on. By now, the chart-topping Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant was the nasally tenored Brit the masses embraced (PSB’s cover of Willie Nelson’s “Always on My Mind” peaked at number four on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1988; Stewart admits to being a fan of the synth-pop duo). Also noteworthy: the wacky “Red Toupee,” which features a young Tori Amos on backing vocals, and “Josephine Baker,” a midtempo rocker that recalls how the legendary banana-dancing stereotype smasher shook things up in her heyday.

Among the synthesizers you’ll find some lovely music as performed and created by Stewart and Shot in the Dark. Real musicians tend to be drawn to quality, not Billboard chart rankings, so while LDOTC didn’t strike marketplace gold (though “King of Portugal” won adult-contemporary airplay and became quite popular in Spain), the great players that helped make Stewart’s music so glorious – Peter Wood, Tim Renwick, Phil Kenzie and Steve Chapman among them – showed their loyalty by contributing to the project.

Tracks:

  1. Last Days of the Century (Peter White co-wrote)
  2. Real and Unreal
  3. King of Portugal (Peter White co-wrote)
  4. Red Toupee (Peter White co-wrote)
  5. Where Are They Now (Peter White co-wrote)
  6. Bad Reputation (Peter White co-wrote)
  7. Josephine Baker (Peter White co-wrote)
  8. License To Steal
  9. Fields Of France
  10. Antarctica (Peter White co-wrote)
  11. Ghostly Horses of the Plain (Steve Recker co-wrote)
  12. Helen and Cassandra (only available on CD version)

Chronicles (EMI, 1991) – Much better retrospective than Best of Al Stewart – then again, this enterprise was blessed with much “creative interference” from the artist himself. This collection includes the big hits and some live tracks from the Roxy era, but also offers a wee peek into Stewart’s bedsit-era output. The liner notes (by David Dasch, former editor of Stewart fan newsletter Chronicles) present information on the background of each song.

Tracks:

  1. Year of the Cat
  2. On the Border
  3. If It Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave It
  4. Time Passages
  5. Almost Lucy
  6. Song on the Radio (CD only)
  7. Running Man (CD only)
  8. Merlin’s Time
  9. In Brooklyn
  10. Soho (Needless to Say) [live; CD only]
  11. Small Fruit Song
  12. Manuscript
  13. Roads To Moscow (live)
  14. Nostradamus 1/World Goes To Riyadh/Nostradamus 2 (live)

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Rhymes in Rooms (Mesa/US, EMI/UK, 1992) – Preceding this lovely live set, which features the duo of Stewart and Peter White and covers a wide range of songs from Stewart’s career so far. Generally, this is the setting in which you’ll find Stewart the performer these days. Now signed to Mesa Records, he experiences music-business drama again and takes his own advice: If it doesn’t come naturally, leave it. By changing the business model – hitting the road as a solo player or with one or two co-performers, he is able to take his songs on the road in the US and Europe and have them promoted via word-of-mouth. It’s a long-term plan that eventually pays off. The power of the songs and the stripped-down beauty of Stewart and White on their guitars (Peter also shines on accordion and piano), so lovingly captured by producer Michael Fagrey on RiR, present the reasons why. Frankly, as much as I love the Live at the Roxy band performances, I prefer Rhymes in Rooms.

Tracks:

  1. Flying Sorcery
  2. Soho (Needless To Say)
  3. Time Passages
  4. Josephine Baker
  5. On the Border
  6. Nostradamus
  7. Fields of France
  8. Clifton in the Rain/A Small Fruit Song
  9. Broadway Hotel
  10. Leave It
  11. Year of the Cat

Famous Last Words (Mesa/US, Permanent/UK, 1993) – Stewart sounds happy on this disc, and no wonder. He’s gotten married and will soon become a father. Songs like “Feel Like” and the effervescent “Genie on a Tabletop” are a testament to the artist’s good spirits. The list of dramatis personae has changed: the Peters, Wood and White, are on hand (White actually produces the disc with Ross Hogarth), as is bassist Adam Yurman, but the others are session players who do a good job on the album’s offerings. Which is no faint praise: FLW has some amazing stuff, including (in addition to those mentioned previously) Trains, a latter-day Stewart classic; the heart-tugging “Don’t Forget Me”; and “Peter on the White Sea,” which soars as it recounts the story of a sea voyage by Russia’s 17th- and 18th-century czar Peter the Great. Also interesting: the silly “Hipposong” and “Charlotte Corday,” a Stewart-Tori Amos collaboration about a principled French Revolution-era woman who paid the ultimate price for being true to herself. (Stewart has talked fondly of his time working with then-upcoming artist Amos at the piano in his living room.)

Despite continuing small-label woes – Mesa soon will find itself dealing with dwindling funds. Eventually, it will merge with another tiny acoustic-music-focused label, Bluemoon, enter a distribution deal with Atlantic Records, and see responsibility for marketing its offerings – including FLW – shuffled from hand to hand. Thankfully, Stewart is focusing on pursuing his interests – marriage, books, film, and wine – and leaving the rest. Whatever the problems with record companies, his classic and new songs are embraced passionately by those who see his acoustic shows in small venues across the US, so things are good.

Tracks:

  1. Feels Like
  2. Angel of Mercy
  3. Don’t Forget Me (Al Stewart & Peter White)
  4. Peter on the White Sea (Al Stewart, David Pack & Andrew Powell)
  5. Genie on a Table Top
  6. Trespasser (Al Stewart & Peter White)
  7. Trains
  8. Necromancer
  9. Charlotte Corday (Al Stewart & Tori Amos)
  10. Hipposong
  11. Night Rolls In

Al Stewart 1966-1970: To Whom It May Concern (Mesa/US, Permanent/UK, 1993) – See Part One for more on this quite marvelous and extensive collection of Stewart songs covering the first three albums of his recording career.

Tracks:

DISC ONE:

  1. The Elf


  2. Turn into Earth (Paul Samwell-Smith & Rosemary Simon)
  3. Bedsitter Images
  4. Swiss Cottage Manoeuvres
  5. The Carmichaels
  6. Scandinavian Girl
  7. Pretty Golden Hair
  8. Denise at 16
  9. Samuel, Oh How You’ve Changed!
  10. Cleave to Me
  11. A Long Way Down from Stephanie
  12. Ivich
  13. Beleeka Doodle Day
  14. Lover Man (Mike Heron)
  15. Clifton in The Rain
  16. In Brooklyn
  17. Old Compton Street Blues
  18. The Ballad of Mary Foster
  19. Life and Life Only

DISC TWO:

  1. You Should Have Listened to Al
  2. Love Chronicles
  3. My Enemies Have Sweet Voices (Al Stewart & Peter Morgan)
  4. A Small Fruit Song
  5. Gethsemane, Again
  6. Burbling
  7. Electric Los Angeles Sunset
  8. Manuscript
  9. Black Hill
  10. Anna
  11. Room of Roots
  12. Zero She Flies

Between the Wars (Mesa/US, EMI/UK, 1995) – Stewart’s touring schedule was flourishing – he was getting to make music for appreciative audiences and take care of his growing family, which now included a baby daughter. The music he was making reflected his growing comfort with the role of folk-pop troubadour, elder statesman and family man.

Another encouraging development was Stewart’s new collaborator: former Paul McCartney and Wings guitarist Laurence Juber. With Al’s blessing, Peter White had set off on his own creative path; he is now a successful solo smooth-jazz recording artist. Juber, a virtuoso player, and Stewart, no slouch himself on the six-string, shared a love for history and classic musical forms – both are huge fans of Bert Jansch and Django Reinhardt. As Juber supported Stewart’s acoustic act on the road, the two decided to work together on a new Stewart album. This one – with Juber producing and playing guitar, banjo, dobro, mandolin – would tell stories from the time between the two world wars and incorporate the sounds of various eras.

BTW was the practically perfect melding of music and theme. Songs like the Asian-inspired “Sampan,” the swinging spy intrigue “Night Train to Munich,” the epic “Three Mules,” and “A League of Notions,” a rhythmically rolling and incisive piece that makes absolutely irresistible the history lesson contained within (the apportioning of control over losing nations after World War I; the League of Nations was a predecessor of today’s United Nations).

I think I’m gonna take a piece of Russia
And a piece of Germany
And give them to Poland again
I’ll put together Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia
And hope that is how they’ll remain…

Given the small-label status of the project, the recording budget was tight, but Juber proved himself a skilled producer capable of fashioning lush sounds on a shoestring – for instance, the rich-sounding strings that color a number of the tracks was the work of Stewart and Juber on synthesized strings. The resulting product is especially memorable and another true Stewart classic, thanks to great songs – do try them all – and to a creative partnership that excels in painting vibrant sonic pictures that linger in the mind, soul and toes.

Tracks:

  1. Night Train to Munich
  2. The Age of Rhythm (Al Stewart & Laurence Juber)
  3. Sampan
  4. Lindy Comes to Town
  5. Three Mules
  6. A League of Notions
  7. Life Between The Wars
  8. Betty Boop’s Birthday (Al Stewart & Laurence Juber)
  9. Marion the Chatelaine
  10. Joe the Georgian
  11. Always the Cause
  12. Laughing into 1939
  13. The Black Danube

Down in the Cellar (Mesa/US, EMI/UK, 2000) – Putting five-year intervals between new albums isn’t fun for fans, but the schedule seems to be suiting Stewart just fine. Seeing even larger crowds at his concerts, which are being booked in ever-larger venues thanks to increasing demand resulting from hardcore Internet-connected fans sharing info and music with one another, with those who lost touch with Stewart’s career, and with new fans across the globe.

This album focuses on the perfect theme for Stewart: Every song incorporates the subject of wine or features wine as a storytelling element. (The veteran connoisseur by now had amassed a number of distinctions including the Compagnon de Bordeaux, Matres-Conseils en Vin de France and the Commadeur d’honneur. His collection of fine French wines at one point numbered in the thousands; now, he says about a thousand bottles remain.) DiTC is another Stewart-Juber collaboration, with the latter producing and playing acoustic and electric guitars, and its overall effect leaves a lingering feeling of satisfaction reminiscent of the aftereffects of indulging in the grape. Songs like the delicate “Toutes les Etoiles” (“All the Stars,” which features Peter White on accordion); “The Night the Band Got the Wine,” whose moral, I suspect, is “everything in moderation, now”; the moving “Under a Wine-Stained Moon”; and a surprise cover of Bert Jansch’s own “Soho” make the disc most intoxicating – and, oh, the bouquet.

On DiTC‘s liner notes, wine merchant and longtime friend Dennis Overstreet gave an excellent answer to the question, “What makes Al Stewart and his music so compelling?”

Al is an outstanding composer and performer and an equally modest individual. He calls himself ‘just a folk singer’ but really his domain extends over a wide range of the pop rock spectrum. We’ve built a lasting friendship around our mutual appreciation of these precious liquids.

As Cole Porter was quoted, “a song is not a song without a lyric”.

Music, like wine, is not only entertaining, but it also has a story to tell. … Unlike many contemporary artists, the songs of Al Stewart don’t feel or sound like they come with an expiration date. Al’s works exist outside of any time frame. Let the listener be entwined around Stewart’s words and emotions, expressing his love for the wine and music.

Tracks:

  1. Waiting for Margaux
  2. Tasting History (Laurence Juber co-wrote)
  3. Down in the Cellars
  4. Turning it into Water
  5. Soho
  6. The Night that the Band got the Wine
  7. Millie Brown
  8. Under a Wine-Stained Moon
  9. Franklin’s Table
  10. House of Clocks
  11. Sergio
  12. Toutes les Etoiles
  13. The Shiraz Shuffle (Laurence Juber co-wrote)

A Beach Full of Shells (Appleseed/US, EMI/UK, late 2005) – Another half-decade goes by, another small record company deal has been signed, and another Al Stewart release is born. I reviewed the album for Blogcritics shortly after its release:

…[T]he talents of the now-60-year-old Stewart only grow richer and more potent over time. [ABFOS] features 13 songs that take listeners through periods of time ranging from World War I to the late ’60s to the present day. … Through his musical tales, he points out that our fears, loves, and insecurities don’t differ much from those of people who walked this earth generations ago — in the land of dream, sense memory, and instinct, our past, present, and future all roll into our here and now.

… Songs such as the intriguingly mideastern “Rain Barrel,” the epic and dream-laden “Somewhere in England 1915,” “Mr. Lear” (which pays homage to English poet Edward Lear), and the memorable “Katherine of Oregon” show Stewart’s lyrical skills and fertile imagination, already renowned, are at least as strong as ever. And with producer Laurence Juber, a longtime Stewart collaborator and Grammy-winning guitarist … he has created sonic portraits that reinforce and color the stories told.

Also recommended: the dark and pensive “Out in the Snow”; “Royal Courtship,” a song language mavens will love, the early-rock memoir “Class of ’58” and the hummable “Mona Lisa Talking.”

Tracks:

  1. The Immelman Turn
  2. Mr. Lear
  3. Royal Courtship
  4. Rain Barrel
  5. Somewhere In England 1915
  6. Katherine Of Oregon
  7. Mona Lisa Talking
  8. Class of ’58
  9. Out In The Snow
  10. My Egyptian CouchGina In The King’s Road
  11. Beacon Street
  12. Anniversary

As for Al Stewart’s musical future? His fan base continues to grow. Soon he will headline a major date at London’s Royal Albert Hall. And despite his recording reticence, he tells me his creative juices are still churning, his mind still traveling to places near and far and times recent and long ago. Which means that with any luck, there will be new stories to hear (perhaps in, say, five years, if the present schedule holds). And of course there is a huge catalog of classic music to take you on magical journeys. Take my advice and avail yourself of it – check out his old and new recordings and catch him live when he hits your area. You won’t be sorry.

More info on Stewart’s music and concert appearances can be found at his official site and at NevilleJudd.com.

Sources: The Al Stewart Mailing List Discography, AlStewart.com, Al Stewart Now, Songfacts, Billboard.com, SuperSeventies.com, Neville Judd‘s Al Stewart: The True Life Adventures of a Folk-Rock Troubadour, Charlie Hulme’s late, lamented Page27 Archives

Originally published as part of Blogcritics‘ April 2000 celebration of Al Stewart as its Featured Artist of the Month.

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