A performer for the history books
Al Stewart's career spans four decades, and he's not done yet
If there's one thing about singer-songwriter Al Stewart's unique approach, it's that he'll never run out of material.
'I always thought there was room for one historical folk rock singer, and I appear to be it,' he jests in a telephone conversation from his home north of San Francisco.
The author of songs about such subjects as World War II, ('Roads to Moscow'), submarines ('Life in Dark Water') and naval disasters ('Lord Grenville') says there's a certain stability in history.
'Talk about timeless material Ñ I mean, the Trojan War's been out there for 3,000 years,' he says. 'It's not going anywhere, not like a song about hula hoops.'
Stewart, who wrote and sang the megahit 'The Year of the Cat,' is performing solo Ñ as he often does Ñ in Portland as part of a lightning tour of the Northwest, with a Seattle gig to follow. He reckons this is better than the old bus tour days, or when he tours Europe doing 14 or 15 shows straight because he can get home between engagements.
But parachuting in for a show or two means a lot of airport time, he says ruefully: 'A gig in Philadelphia takes three days, with travel.'
These days, Stewart divides his performances between solo acoustic gigs, 'where people want to hear the lyrics,' and playing with Ambrosia, the art-rock band from the '70s ('Holdin' on to Yesterday'). They also back Stephen Bishop, Christopher Cross, Gary Wright, Dave Mason and Edgar Winter at various times.
Having a full band 'takes care of my need to make a lot of noise,' Stewart says.
From beginnings as a folkie in London clubs in the late 1960s, he's come full circle to playing the same places again.
'I thought I'd have a different trajectory,' he says. 'In the '60s, bands usually had a couple of top 10 hits, did 'Top of the Pops' and it'd be all over in five years, like Dave Berry and the Cruisers. Then you'd be selling cars or something.'
Stewart attributes his survival to the fact that he has yet to have a top 10 hit in England and that folkies usually don't have 'sell-by' dates, as he puts it, like pop singers.
The subject of a recent biography by Neville Judd, 'Al Stewart: True Life Adventures of a Folk Rock Troubadour,' the 57-year-old Stewart notes the honor with wry amusement: 'It's another way of saying you're old.'
He's reading Andrew Oldham's memoirs of the '60s and feeling nostalgic for the hits he never had.
'But I meet a lot of people on the road who did have hits in the '60s,' he says, 'and quite a few of them have moved back to England and are living with their mothers, not having a terribly good time.'
Stewart resisted becoming an accountant as his grandfather wanted, or joining a major British corporation Ñ lifetime careers when he left school in 1963.
'Everybody told me rock 'n' roll would never last Ñ and now it's bigger than ever, while British Steel and British Leyland are gone,' he says. 'It just proves that everything I was told turned out to be wrong.'
For his latest tour, Stewart will be playing his Taylor guitar, which was accidentally modified by a temperature extreme to have the world's lowest action (the strings are very close to the frets).
'If the strings were any lower, it would make no noise at all,' he says, but the setting enables him to get an edgier sound.
Don't be surprised if he changes his songs.
'I get tired of bands who sound exactly like their records,' he says. 'I've done reggae versions, changed to 6/8 time from 4/4, added solos, changed words. It's not so much for the audience as the performer who gets frazzled.'