When the moment arrived, I actually got a bit of a lump in my throat, surprised at the small surge of emotion.
Martha, Ben, and I drove north to Cincinnati last Friday to see Al Stewart in concert. The show had originally been scheduled for May 20, but a bout of covid Al had caught about ten days beforehand had knocked him off the circuit temporarily. I was fortunate that when the make-up date was announced, it was still on the weekend since my fall semester would already have begun.
We left home several hours before showtime because, well, you never know how bad traffic might be crossing the Brent Spence Bridge over the Ohio River. Our early dinner, on the Kentucky side, was calzones at LaRosa’s, a well-known and well-regarded local pizza/Italian chain. The I-75 North gods were smiling on us that day, and we weaved our way into the Clifton area of town, not far from the University of Cincinnati, with relative ease. We had time enough before the doors opened to scope out Torn Light Records, an interesting place selling vinyl, cassettes, and CDs, as well as to grab some Graeter’s ice cream (another local fave).
Our ultimate destination was the Ludlow Garage, an L-shaped room in the basement of a former automobile shop. Not surprisingly, the stage resides in the corner of the L; our seats were about two-thirds of the way back in the less deep bank of seats (the “horizontal” part of the L). Total capacity is about 500. It’s plenty intimate, but we discovered that the sightlines aren’t entirely great–there’s not enough slope up away from the stage, so heads in the row or two in front of you are capable of blocking your view.
We enjoyed the music, though, even if it could have benefited from being just a tad less loud. Stewart is using The Empty Pockets, an indie quartet out of Chicago, as his backing band, and they also serve as opening act. They played five tunes from their just-released album Outside Spectrum, along with a cover of Fairport Convention’s “Meet on the Ledge.” The performance was fine, but I’m having a hard time classifying their sound; it’s part bluesy-bar band, part pop-rock, with elements of torch singing and maybe a tiny bit of goth tossed in as well. They feature a twin vocal attack, with appealing harmonies from keyboard player Erika Brett and guitarist Josh Solomon. I think overall Ben liked them more than I did, but there were a couple of tunes, including the title track of the new record, to which I can see myself circling back.
After a half-hour break, the band came back out with Stewart in tow, and over the next hour-plus, the five of them, plus flutist/saxophonist/percussionist Marc Macisso, rolled through about a dozen tunes from Al’s storied collection. I counted five songs from Year of the Cat and two from Time Passages. Because he was in Ohio, Al felt compelled to pay homage to one of its native sons who became President, playing the jaunty “Warren Harding.” While I really like that cut from Past, Present and Future, I fear it took the place of long-time favorite “Flying Sorcery” based on my perusal of setlists from recent shows.
Stewart has a breezy, charming presence on stage and is a natural storyteller (one tale was about taking guitar lessons from fellow Dorset native Robert Fripp when Al was a youngster). Overall, the Empty Pockets did his work justice, perhaps primarily through Solomon’s guitar support. Macisso was excellent, nailing the flute on “Antarctica” and sax solos on “Time Passages.” It was fine that Al had to drop an octave on the occasional phrase.
The last tune of the set was the one for which I’d been waiting. I didn’t know how it would feel to hear “Year of the Cat,” which I’ve been calling my favorite song of all-time since I was 13 years old, performed live. As I noted at the top, things came closer than expected to getting the better of me. I concentrated on being present in the moment, stopping briefly to take a couple of photos toward the end. So what if it wasn’t as polished as the studio version I’ve loved since the winter of 1977? It was still a bucket list slice of time.
The encore was a cover of Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero,” Stewart paying tribute to the man who showed him a musical path forward. One by one, the Pockets left the stage, finally leaving just Stewart and Macisso (now playing harmonica). I wished it would have gone on longer, but Al turns 77 in less than two weeks–it was plenty enough.
Immediately prior to “Year of the Cat,” they played this introspective, meta piece about the art and act of musical performance. No, I won’t ever meet you, Al, but I do indeed feel I know some portion of you through your work. Thank you kindly for what you’ve given to the world, and to me.