Singer-songwriter Al Stewart offers historical perspectiveWritten by Vicki L. Kroll | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Chatting with the affable Al Stewart is as enjoyable as listening to him wield words in song.
“I often say I only have two talents in life: I can rhyme just about anything, and I can read a wine list. And as it happens, these are the two things that you need to do my job,” he said and laughed.
Most know the artist for the jazzy, piano-driven “Year of the Cat” with its memorable sax and guitar solos and clever lyrics. The cool song was a surprise hit in 1977 during the disco era.
“We really didn’t see that coming,” Stewart said. “I purposely tucked [‘Year of the Cat’] away at the end [of the album of the same name] because I thought it was the least commercial track. I had no idea. I tend to put the long songs at the end.”
He reminisced during a call from a tour stop in London.
“I think some people were confused because they’d come to hear ‘Year of the Cat’ and I’d play ‘Roads to Moscow.’ Sixteen-year-old girls are not necessarily interested in the Russian pact from World War II, so I think a lot of people were a little confused initially,” he said. “‘Year of the Cat’ and ‘Time Passages’ were, I think, atypical in my career.”
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Stewart grew up in Bournemouth, England, telling everyone he was going to be a rock musician.
“I discovered to my horror when I bought an electric guitar that I really didn’t have a talent for it,” he recalled. “I was really hovering in total anguish at 17. Then at 18, along comes Bob Dylan; he pretty much saved my life because he couldn’t sing or play either, but, of course, he was able to unspool these vast amounts of words by, as one of my songs says, ‘throwing them like fireworks in the air.’
“And I thought: I can do that. I can’t do it exactly the same as Bob Dylan, but I get the principle: You buy an acoustic guitar and then you write hundreds of words in songs and turn them into stories. So I sold my electric guitar and became a folk singer.”
By the mid-1970s, Stewart’s stature as a storyteller reveling in history was set.
“I write my songs to be like the books and movies that I like,” he said. “There’s usually plot development; a lot of them take place in different countries, different time zones and different centuries even.
“And a lot of them have several different things going on at the same time, so you don’t really know if it’s a historical song or if it’s an allegory. So there’s a certain amount of intrigue.”
Stewart will bring that musical mystique to The Ark in Ann Arbor, where he’ll play at 8 p.m. Aug. 15. Tickets are $30. Doors open at 7:30 p.m.
“It’s a very unusual job, performing things you’ve made, things you created,” he said. “The fact that you could write songs and somehow pay your way just by doing that is quite extraordinary to me. … I’ve been able to do this for 50 years and make a living at it. It’s a wonderful gift.”