“Year of the Cat” and “Time Passages” have become such soft rock radio staples over the years that even those who don’t know the name Al Stewart will still almost certainly recognize the songs within the first few chords. Yet while those two tracks might have been his commercial peak, to know only them is to barely scratch the surface of his nearly sixty-year long career. Sunday night saw the 76-year-old folk rocker (though his voice – which sounds much the same as ever – and his energy on the stage belies his years) come to the Harrisburg Midtown Arts Center in Harrisburg, PA, and play to an audience ranging from teenagers to his contemporaries, showing the lasting appeal of his music across generations.
For several years now, Stewart has toured backed by Chicago-based band The Empty Pockets, who opened the show with a set of their rootsy Americana. Led by husband-and-wife duo of Josh Solomon and Erika Brett, the band tore through an energetic set drawing from their upcoming album Outside Spectrum (releasing August 12th) and their previous releases Voices and Ten Cent Tour, along with a cover of the Fairport Convention classic “Meet on the Ledge.”
After an intermission, Stewart came to the stage, joined by The Empty Pockets and by multi-instrumentalist Marc Macisso (who switched between saxophone, flute, and percussion throughout the show). They opened the set with “Sirens of Titan” off of Stewart’s 1975 album Modern Times, a song inspired by the Kurt Vonnegut novel of the same title. Stewart is known in particular for his history-based songs, and the set included “Antarcitca” (referencing Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton’s doomed expeditions to the frozen continent), “The Palace of Versailles” (about the French Revolution), and “Joe the Georgian” (about Bolsheviks waiting in hell for Joseph Stalin – “There are only three songs in the world about Stalin,” quipped Stewart, “and I wrote all of them.”). Stewart pointed out, however, that many of his historical songs are not what they seem on the surface, and are instead allegories about topics such as jilted lovers and failed romance.
Unsurprisingly, Stewart’s best-known album, 1976’s Year of the Cat, dominated the setlist, with “Flying Sorcery,” “Broadway Hotel,” “On the Border,” and “Midas Shadow” making up the middle of the set. But Stewart found the time to sneak some rarities into the show as well, including “Like William McKinley” (“For some unknown reason I studied all the American presidents, and their wives too. I mean, why? I’m English.”) and “Almost Lucy.” He closed the main set with, of course, “Year of the Cat,” and then came back to encore with a Bob Dylan cover, “Love Minus Zero/No Limit.”
Stewart is scheduled to release a 50 CD(!) career-spanning box set, The Admiralty Lights, on June 3rd through the Madfish label.
Al Stewart Setlist
Sirens of Titan Antarctica The Palace of Versailles Time Passages Flying Sorcery Broadway Hotel On the Border
Midas Shadow Like William McKinley Joe the Georgian Almost Lucy Year of the Cat