Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Al Stewart: September 2002, Austin, Texas.


Those of you who have been around for a while might remember my review of Al’s May 26, 2001 show at the Cactus Café in Austin, Texas. For the benefit of those who missed the last review, the Cactus Café is a small, intimate room in the student center on the University of Texas campus. It's a place where a lot of big names in Texas music play for small crowds. As a rule, there are no advance ticket sales. As with last year’s show, this rule held true for Al's show, so the best seats went to whoever showed up first, but even the worst seats are better than good seats most places.

The show started at 8:30. Tickets went on sale at 8:00. I was there at 5:45, about the same time as arrived for the last Austin show. Last time, there was one person in font of me. This time, I was third in line, behind Chris from Dallas (who was behind me last time), and Julieta from San Antonio (whom everyone calls Julie and who was first in line for the last show). We had a couple of hours before the show to get reacquainted. Chris had last seen Al at the St. Louis show. I got the impression that Julie goes to just about every show there is. I think she may be Al’s most enthusiastic fan.

One observation: The Cactus Café is on the University of Texas campus and in the UT student center. But I didn’t see a single person in line who looked like a UT student. Maybe a graduate student making a mid-life career change, but no one who looked like an undergraduate. Good thing, too. There are something like 50,000 students at UT, and if even 55 of them were Al fans, I’d have been lucky to be able to get a ticket at all.

Anyway, the layout of the venue was a bit different from Al’s last show. At the 2001 show, they had taken out all the tables and arranged rows of chairs in an “L” shape around the stage. This time, they left about a half a dozen tables surrounding the stage. Chris, Julie, and I got the one directly in front of) and slightly overlapping) the stage. The stage was less than knee high, and it was not more than six feet from our seats to the microphone. I don’t think seats get any better than that.

I ordered a half a carafe of their finest (and only) merlot, and sat back to enjoy the show.

There were no Black Shirts in evidence.


Al's special guest (i.e., opening act) was Dirk Hamilton. Hamilton is a local in the Austin sense. He drifted into town 12 years ago and just didn’t get around to leaving. He played a set of six songs. His music was sort of Seegeresque with strong notes of Arlo Guthrie and hints of Joe Cocker and John Mellencamp; unassuming with a clean finish and no discernable aftertaste.


At the last show, Al came bounding onto the stage from the back of the club. This time, he slipped in through a door at the back of the stage. (I’m pretty certain that this door leads to the street, and not to a dressing room or anything like that.). He was greeted with enthusiastic applause. By far the loudest came from Julie, sitting across the table from me. Al took his guitar out of the case and commented on his surprise that it was still in tune. He also commented on the enthusiasm of the crowd. Then he started into what soon developed into Antarctica.

Next up, Al pulled out his trusty capo and secured it on the second fret. He started into one of his older songs—dating all the way back to 1922, or so he said. It was “Rumors of War,” and he played it very well indeed. From there, he went into a real oldie—“Samuel, Oh How You’ve Changed.”

“Samuel,” like most of Al’s early songs, has not been among my favorites. The studio version on Bed Sitter Images always seemed to me to be lifeless and uninteresting. But there was something about the live performance that revealed a true gem. I wonder whether this is because “Samuel” is a much better song than gave it credit for, or If Al could just make anything sound good live. I’d like to hear him do “Disco Duck” sometime.

When he finished with Samuel, Al started into one of his between-songs riffs. And he forgot where he was going. Then he found his way into “On the Border.”

When he’d finished with “On the Border,” someone called out a request for “Age of Rhythm.” As Al moved the capo to the third fret, he explained that he was a good guitarist, and Peter White was a really good guitarist, but only Lawrence Juber could play “Age of Rhythm.” He played a riff from “Lonely People” and embarked on a “Night Train to Munich.”

Early on in the show, Al had asked how many people in the audience had been there for the last Austin show. It looked like about eighty percent. He said that he was going to play a lot of songs from old Al Stewart records. I think he took that as permission to go a little deeper into his catalog than he usually does. The next song was an unreleased track that I had never heard before. I understand it’s working title is “Dark Side of the Street.” It was every bit as good as Samuel.

Next up came what Al described as one of his favorite songs—a song about clocks. And with that he played “House of Clocks.”

“House of Clocks” is a short song, and Al said that he was going to play a long one. From the audience came the obligatory request for “Roads to Moscow.” Al said, “I’ll bow to your superior taste” and played it. Or tried to play it, anyway. Twice he forgot what came next.

You’d think that when a performer forgets the words or loses his place in a song, that it would detract from the performance. That was not the case her. Al handled it with such good-natured charm that, it anything, it actually enhanced the experience.

When the song was over, Al laid the blame for his failure of memory squarely at the feet of Continental Airlines. It seems that Al had booked his flight to Austin for 9/11 (an inauspicious date to be sure), and every hour a new problem with the plane was discovered (or a new excuse concocted), until, after waiting more than five hours at the airport, Al made other arrangements. And course, the Continental flight departed shortly thereafter.

And then Al solicited requests. Someone at the back of the room called out “Dark and Rolling Sea.” I suggested “Maggie Mae.” Someone said “Apple Cider Reconstitution.” There was a “Sampan.” And just about anything else you could think of. Al observed that a number of the requests were for songs that he didn’t know. But the winner, shouted most enthusiastically by on eof the people sharing my table, was “Carol.”

When he finished with Carol, Al said that he hadn’t played that one in a long time (not since it was requested very enthusiastically at the last Austin show, I believe). He said he didn’t have a playlist and again took requests from the audience. This time it was “Flying Sorcery.

When he finished with “Flying Sorcery,” Al put the capo back on the third fret, but then took it off when someone shouted out “End of the Day.” Al found this an agreeable request and played it. But Gordon Bethune (Continental Airlines Chairman and CEO) struck again. Al got stuck and asked what chord came next. Someone in the front very enthusiastically called out the next line, but Al explained he needed the chord, not the words. Then it came to him and he finished the song. He said it was nice to have an opportunity to play songs that he doesn’t know very well.

Next up was “Marion the Chatelaine.” When he finished the song, he explained a bit what it was about—that Marion Davies was an actress and a significant other of William Randolph Hearst, though he never married her, and that David Niven gave her the sobriquet “the Chatelaine” and surreptitiously brought her booze. Then he said that it might have been better to give the explanation before playing the song.

Next came the Bob Dylan impersonation. It turns out Al does a much better Dylan than Dylan himself.

In between Dylan impersonation, Al talked about how folk singers tend to do autobiographical stuff (except Dylan, who did autobiographical stuff that he wouldn’t admit was autobiographical). Then he did his own autobiographical song: “Almost Lucy.” I was sort of surprised, since I always assumed Lucy was a stripper or something. It makes more sense now. Live and learn.

From his folk period, Al moved on to 60s rock. He played various familiar riffs, but kept coming back to “You Really Got Me.” He said that, had he only been two years older, he could have been one of the Kinks. Then another request came from the back of the room, and he played it. And it was “Terminal Eyes,” of all things. And he didn’t forget any of it.

Then Al started playing strains of “Heard it through the Grapevine,” which seems to have replaced “As Time Goes By” as the “Year of the Cat” intro. This I took as a bad sign because it meant the show was almost over. Al played “Year of the Cat” but, when it came time to sing the words ”the year of the cat,” he put his hand to his ear and waited for the audience to sing it. It came as a bit of a surprise the first time around. The second time the audience got it more or less right. The third time, and for the rest of the song, Al sang it himself. Then it was back to the grapevine and then the end of the show.

But of course, that wasn’t really the end. The applause drowned out even the exceedingly enthusiastic fan to my right, and Al consented to play an encore. A number of titles were shouted from the audience, but this time Al took the request from the back of the room and played “The Dark and the Rolling Sea.” (Capo on the third fret, for those who care about such things.)

Those of you who have heard the story of the song on “The Blue Album” or “Ttime Passages Live” will recall that Al described this as a love song. Sort of. Now it’s purely vindictive—turning an ex-girlfriend into the rotten hulk of a ship disappearing in a stream of bubbles as she sinks into the sludge of the seabed where she is eaten by shrimp.

After “The Dark and the Rolling Sea,” Al segued into “The Candidate,” and then into a riff from “Pinball Wizard,” and with that, the show was over. Al announced that he would be available to sign things after the show, and with that he left

Despite Gordon Bethune’s best efforts, it was an absolutely fantastic show. I got the impression that Al knew that this was a crowd that wanted to hear things other than the hits, and he was more than willing to accommodate. It was a uniquely enjoyable experience. Here's the song list:

1. Antarctica
2. Rumors of War
3. Samuel, How You’ve Changed
4. On the Border
5. Night Train to Munich
6. Dark Side of the Street
7. House of Clocks
8. Roads to Moscow
9. Carol
10. Flying Sorcery
11. End of the Day
12. Marion the Chatelaine
13. Almost Lucy
14. Terminal Eyes
15. Year of the Cat


1. The Dark and the Rolling Sea
2. The Candidate


Before he slipped out the back door, Al said that he would be available to sign things. In my case, it was LDOTC, SLAGIATT and BTW. I also had the opportunity to ask him who was responsible for selecting the reviews that were printed inside the gatefold “The Early Years” album. He blamed the record company; said they wanted good reviews and bad reviews. NTTAWWT.

When it was all over, I wished I had asked Al the title to song #6. It was one I've never heard before but, having paid insufficient attention to unofficial releases, mistakenly assumed was "Darkside." Special thanks to Laura G. for coming through with the correct title to “Dark Side of the Street.”

© 2002 by XXXXXXXXXX, all rights reserved, except the following:

This review may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the express written permission of the author, unless it would better serve your purposes to do it that way. On the off chance you think you could make a buck or otherwise benefit from it, go for it. I only ask that proper attribution be made. Unless this would in any way undermine your purposes.

Thank you and good night.

Labels: , ,


Anonymous Alan said...

I read this review when you first posted it a few years ago. Sounds like it was one of Al's better solo appearances. I hope his upcoming Texas shows are as good as this one!

Thursday, May 26, 2005 11:44:00 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home