“Play like Eddie Cochran and think like Barbara Tuchman!” — Al Stewart, 2009
Ask Al Stewart to sum up where he is now, musically speaking, and you’re likely to wind up two steps behind where you started; this is by no means an unusual circumstance in conversation with Al, keenly aware as he is that making a leap forward often entails taking a step backward. Sometimes it’s into the library stacks where the late historian Ms. Tuchman dug for material. Sometimes it’s into the record stacks where the late rocker Mr. Cochran made his mark as a teenager singing his “Summertime Blues” so many summertimes ago.
In many ways, the summertime of Stewart’s 2009 much more resembled his summer of 1969 than it did the summer of 1979, when his multi-million-selling “Year of the Cat” and “Time Passages” were staples of FM radio, and he was touring with saxes, synths, singers, and all the accoutrements pop stardom brings. “I don’t think I ever knew how to be in front of a band,” says Al, a little modestly. “I always felt I was loitering there while they were doing all the work.”
With the release of Uncorked, Al and musical partner Dave Nachmanoff take a trip through Stewart’s musical back pages, both in terms of the musical catalogue (they did have nearly 20 albums’ worth of songs to pick from), and in terms of performance style. After all, Al made his bones in the massively fertile folk scene that was London in the late ’60s, and he numbers among his contemporaries the likes of guitar wizards Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, singer-songwriters Roy (“Hats Off To”) Harper and Richard Thompson, and a former flatmate named Paul Simon, who went on to some celebrity upon returning to America.
Recorded live during a springtime East Coast swing, Uncorked is the first live acoustic disc Al’s done since 1992’s Rhymes In Rooms, and both he and Nachmanoff made a conscious decision not to replicate any of the tracks from that disc, even if it meant leaving off such standards as “On the Border” and the two aforementioned Top 40 hits. “Because I’ve learned all of Al’s songs, we had an opportunity to revisit some of the tunes that hadn’t been featured in more recent years,” says Nachmanoff. “I think at this point, we can actually do three or four full shows and never play the same songs twice. And while Al usually comes in to a gig with a set list in mind, often times, we’ll just throw it out and go with the flow.”
As a consequence, it sounds like the duo isn’t just playing well (fact is, Al’s guitar work is actually even better now than it was back in the day, thanks to the acoustic touring configuration that brings his musical contributions more to the fore), it sounds like they’re having fun. And if the title tracks from albums like Last Days of the Century and Bedsitter Images don’t immediately conjure images of major-label milestones, that’s just fine with Al. “It’s much more enjoyable for me to hear myself and for the audience to hear the words,” says Stewart. “And the audience seems to agree. The way I look at it, if I can still get everybody on their hind legs at the end of show cheering, then I’ve won.”
Like Uncorked itself, that’s vintage Al.