Saturday, February 17, 2018

Al Stewart Wins at the High Point Theater

I don't often get to concerts these days, but last evening, Ms. B. and I, along with friends Joe, Suzy, Tom, and Janice, headed to the High Point Theater to see Al Stewart, whose music was an integral part of life during my late teens and some years beyond. These days, for old times' sake, I'll occasionally put on "Year of the Cat," "On the Border," "Lord Grenville," and/or "Time Passages," which did and still rate as my favorites among his songs. I was most enthused about getting to hear the entire "Year of the Cat" album — one of the quintessential albums of my late teen years — performed live along with selections from several of Stewart's other albums.

The band The Empty Pockets, from Chicago — my old stomping grounds — opened the show and also played as Stewart's backing band. In those long-gone olden days when I was a frequent concert-goer, opening bands could wear thin quickly, but The Empty Pockets not only failed to wear thin, they proved themselves an impressive act, offering up melodious tunes, powerful vocals, and heartfelt lyrics. From the start, they displayed the ideal combination of technical prowess and sheer energy, with standout performances by lead vocalists Josh Solomon and Erika Brett. In fact, if I had any complaint, it would be that during Stewart's show, these two could have been given a bit more prominence, even in their roles as backing vocalists.

Stewart opened his show with the spirited “Sirens of Titan,” from his album "Modern Times," which was not among my those I owned back in the day (a situation I could and probably should remedy). Immediately evident was that Al Stewart, at 72 years old, sounds not much unlike Al Stewart in his 20s and 30s, although his voice doesn't quite reach the upper ranges at which he had excelled in those years past. "Time Passages" proved another of the concert's highlights, with particularly impressive musicianship by The Empty Pockets. The performances of "Lord Grenville," "Broadway Hotel," and "On the Border" about brought tears to my eyes, all so poignant and, for me, pleasantly nostalgic.

Providing the critical saxophone accompaniment (not to mention most every other instrument on stage, depending on the song) we had the multi-talented Marc Macisso, whose lungs must hold as much air as an industrial-size oxygen tank. His enthusiasm and energy was infectious, and at the end of "Year of the Cat," he came out into the audience and went to town on the sax, to thrilling effect.

Stewart's stage presence displayed class top to bottom. Between songs, he related personal stories about his music and his life, told with warmth, erudition, and humor, which made him one of the most endearing personalities I've seen on stage. His reminiscences on how his record company insisted on his writing a hit song and how he consistently foiled them — such as by composing a song "about an ill-fated admiral at the Battle of Trafalgar" — about brought the house down. Another favorite was his recollections of having grown up being friends with Robert Fripp, of King Crimson fame, who taught Stewart to play guitar but later lamented that Stewart had made it as a recording artist by "ignoring everything Fripp had ever taught him." One little self-deprecating moment that rang true was when Stewart  indicated he "just knew" some folks in the audience would have come accompanying someone else and actually knew nothing about him (Brugger raised her hand). "You said it was ROD!" such person would wail. I laughed a bit.

Al Stewart's songs encompass history, allegory, personal chronicles, and pure narrative, and thus resonate powerfully with me. Last night, he left the stage to a long, standing ovation, and I was as pleased as I ever have been to raise my hands in applause — for Al Stewart as well as the capable musicians who accompanied him.
The stage lighting — and my not-so-great phone camera — in most of my photos turned Al Stewart into an ill-
fated victim of The Invaders' disintegration weapon. In this photo, it's poor Marc Macisse disintegrating.

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