Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Al Stewart: July 11, 2003, Houston, Texas.

Houston. July 11, 2003

As always, the show was great. Unfortunately, my pen went out just as I was writing "Antarctica," which was Al's leadoff song, so this won't be one of my trademark fabulous reviews. I'll do the best I can with my fuzzy memory of the evening.

First, the venue: McGonigel's Mucky Duck in Houston. It fancies itself to be an Irish pub. It’s the first place I’ve seen Al where you can get Guinness beef stew served in a crusty bread bowl. Most of those with reserved seats were there when I arrived an hour before the show. The food is quite good, if you like pub fare. For those going to the Sunday show, I’d recommend getting there in time to eat before the show. Order a bottle of wine or two and you’re set for the evening. The menu’s on their website at:

The room itself is small enough that I don’t think you could get a bad seat. If you could get a seat at all. The reserved seats sold out early, and it was standing room only for the latecomers. As of last night, it’s standing room only for the Sunday show as well. I was at the second table in the first row. Not more than ten feet from Al’s mic.

The opener was Hayes Carll. Good singin', good song writin', good banter between the songs. And he's a local boy. He'll be returning to the Mucky Duck on July 25, and I expect I will too.

After Mr. Carll finished his set, a fair amount of time was spent trying to get the sound right for Al’s show. Dave Nachmanoff provided instrumental reinforcement during Al’s show, and they had a bit of trouble getting the proper balance. I made my way to the back of the room and bought his CD. They also had a whole slew of Dave Nachmanoff’s stuff for sale, and the Miramar version of Down In the Cellar (DitC). Al's sidekick Neville Judd was there to handle the DitC sales. He’ll be there Sunday too, so I guess I’ll have to bring my copy of the book to get it signed by Boswell AND Johnson.

Anyway, as I said in the introduction, Al opened with Antarctica. (I lost a bet that he’d open with Flying Sorcery, but I’m going double or nothing on the Sunday show.) But before he did that, he had to dispose of a two glasses of wine that had been left for him on the stage. Apparently there had been a miscommunication with the management, and the drinks that he had intended to have in the dressing room ended up in the wrong place, and he was worried that he’d kick them over during the show. So he asked whether anyone in the audience would like a glass of wine. I didn’t speak up, and someone else got them. Maybe next time.

Now, back to Antarctica…. After he finished the song, Al explained that Scott and Shackleton were British explorers who were trying to get the South Pole, and that Shackleton didn’t make it and Scott made it but died on the way back, but they were both beaten by a Norwegian chap named Amundsen, who made it back by eating his dogs. He said the British explorers never would have done something like that because it’s just not sporting. Which, he said, explains a lot.

Next up was a history song, or more precisely, a song about something on the edge of history. It was, of course, Helen and Cassandra. This was, as we all know, a bonus track on Last Days of the Century. What I didn’t know is that it’s now one of his favorites, but at the time he almost left it off.

Here’s where we ordered the second bottle of wine and my memory gets fuzzy. Some songs might be out of order, and details will be missing. I think the next song was House of Clocks.

Al said he was going to play a song that nobody likes but him. And then he did. And it was Mondo Sinistro. Only, as is typical with Al songs, some sort of strange transformation happens and a song that rates a “skip always” on the recorded version somehow becomes clever or fun or poignant or whatever when it’s performed live. Mondo Sinistro was no exception. He had too much fun playing it for anyone not to like it.

Apple Cider Reconstitution, on the other hand, seemed to me to be an exception to this rule. It was still very good live, but it seemed that there was some spark that was missing. It’s the only time I can think of where I thought the studio version surpassed a live performance.

At one point, Al played a work in progress—a song in which the Immelman Turn. He also explained how these “works in progress” can change over time, and something that started as a song about a flyer can end up being about a German sausage factory. But it’s still the same song. Anyway, for those who weren’t barnstormers of Ace of Aces fans, he explained what it was, more or less. Not in any detail, just that it was a maneuver invented by a World War I German fighter pilot, and that it was picked up by the barnstormers and flying circuses that toured the country after the war in the surplus Curtiss Jennies that they picked up for a song after the war.

Playing this particular song may heave been a little unfair to Dave Nachmanoff since he was being asked to play a song that he’d never heard before. Al played a riff and Dave played it back almost right. After going over it a couple more times, Dave had it down and they played the song. Note to Al: Have your lawyers get with Gordon Lightfoot’s lawyers. There are bits of this song that sounded a LOT like Cherokee Bend. At least it sounded that way to me.

As I’m sure you all know, every singer-songwriter of note has one and only one hit. Al said this one was his. Bum-ba-bum-bum…. Heard it through the Grapevine, of course. It seems that heard it through the Grapevine has become engrafted onto Year of the Cat in the same way that Small Fruit Song has become conjoined with Clifton in the Rain. Which he also played, though I’m sure it’s out of order here. And he also played Soho, Needless to Say. And Laughing into 1939. And On the Border. And Sirens of Titan.

Somewhere along the way Al pointed out that it would be a shame to have the man voted “Songwriter of the Year” and not give him the opportunity to play one of those songs he wrote. So Al surrendered the stage. It seems that Dave had at some point in his life served time as a philosophy instructor. He said that he had been working hard to get over it and step by step had exorcised Kant and Hegel and the modern and medieval philosophers and Plato and Socrates and the presocratics. I don’t know whether it was a relapse or just part of his therapy, but the song he chose to play was Descartes in Amsterdam.

For the first encore, someone shouted out “Sand in your Shoes,” which Al obligingly played. There was a second encore, but I can’t remember which song it was. I’m pretty sure that it’s one of those that I’ve listed, though.

After the show, Al invited the audience to the back of the room for signings and requests for the Sunday show. I already have both versions of DitC, so I looked at Dave Nachmanoff’s stuff instead. I don’t have any of his stuff—or didn’t, anyway—so I picked up a signed copy of “A Certain Distance.” He had a bunch of other CDs there and he said they were 3 for $40 (or $15 each). I told him I’d listen to the one I bought and get back to him on Sunday. So he gave me an official Dave Nachmanoff guitar pick.

By the time I finished talking with Dave and Neville, Al’s autograph line had gotten pretty long, and I ended up being about the second to last. The guy in front had Al sign the back of his “Al Stewart Troubadour” shirt, which he was wearing at the time. I had nothing to get signed, but I did have a couple requests. First, my 8-year-old niece will be at the Sunday show, and Trains is her favorite song. Unfortunately, Al said that he didn’t have the words with him. Then I told him that Coldest Winter in Memory was poised to knock off Roads to Moscow for the top slot on the SOTW rankings. He said to remind him on Sunday and he’d play it.

BTW, he does look in on the SOTW rankings enough to know that “Cleave to Me” was voted his worst song when he played it at an Arizona show.

And that was that.

To the best of my recollection, these are the songs Al played (accompanied by Dave Nachmanoff on all songs), though not necessarily in the order he played them:

Helen and Cassandra
House of Clocks
Apple Cider Reconstitution
Mondo Sinistro
Year of the Cat
Clifton in the Rain/ Small Fruit Song
Soho, Needless to Say
Laughing into 1939
On the Border
Sirens of Titan.
Sand in your Shoes

Al did not play:

Descartes In Amsterdam (Dave Nachmanoff, solo)

If anyone has a better recollection of the song list or the order in which they were played, I’d appreciate any input so I can revise my review. For reasons I don’t understand at all, I keep these things.

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