From the Royal Albert Hall, in London, to Potter Auditorium, in Chatfield — “This year has been really strange in terms of venues,” said Al Stewart.
Stewart, a legend of the British folk-rock revival of the 1960s and ’70s, performs Saturday in Chatfield, fresh off a pair of shows in London. The Chatfeld concert is part of the Chosen Bean concert series.
“It’s a different atmosphere, but it’s equally good,” Stewart said.
Accompanying him will be guitarist Dave Nachmanoff, a frequent Stewart collaborator who has played three separate Chosen Bean shows of his own.
The connection is largely thanks to the efforts of Tom Hilgren, who runs the Chosen Bean series as a volunteer.
As far as their set list for the evening — anything is possible. While Stewart says that he almost always plays material from his 1974 album, “Past, Present and Future,” which he says may be his best written album from a lyrical standpoint, the pair usually selects what to play 10 minutes prior to taking the stage.
“We very rarely play the same show twice. We like to surprise each other,” says Stewart, “We’ll throw things in sometimes that we haven’t played for 30 years, or ever, in some cases. We kind of make things up on the spot. It’s somewhat anarchic and it’s whatever comes into our heads.”
Stewart is best known for his 1976 single, “Year of the Cat,” though his long discography is still being unpacked by studious fans working to uncover the obscure historical references in his lyrics.
Whatever songs Stewart sings, they will likely avoid what Stewart says are the two all-time most prevalent subjects in music: “Baby I love you” and “Baby, why did you leave me?” He has made a career of shining light into the dark corners of history rather than repeat age-old sentiments.
“What I’m doing is a census of music, literature, history, and film,” he said. “The first line of ‘Year of the Cat’ is ‘On a morning from a Bogart movie,'” he points out.
His most requested song, “Roads to Moscow,” is about the German invasion of Russia in World War II, based largely on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s book, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” while “Old Admirals” is inspired by the life of British Admiral John Fisher. Some of the historical figures he sings about are not even mentioned by name in the song; “Somewhere in England, 1915,” is about poet Rupert Brooke, though the song never mentions him by name.
The obscure nature of his subject matter is something Stewart uses to challenge his audiences.
“It’s like a little test to see who in the audience has actually done their research,” says Stewart.
He has written songs about American presidents, but instead of Lincoln or Washington, his songs feature Warren Harding, William McKinley, and Dwight Eisenhower. Rather than write a song about Napoleon, he penned one about Charlotte Corday, a figure in the French Revolution who assassinated revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat in his bath.
“I guess I could’ve written about Napoleon, but Charlotte Corday just seemed a lot more interesting to me,” he said.
As someone who came up during the British folk-rock revival in the ’60s and ’70s, Stewart has lived through his fair share of historical times. He bought his first guitar from a future member of the Police and took lessons from Robert Fripp, who went on to lead King Crimson.
At 19, he moved to London to pursue a career in folk music and wound up staying in the room next door to Paul Simon. He finagled a way backstage at a Beatles concert, where he met the band and played John Lennon’s guitar.
Later, while recording his first single, the session guitarist approached him about a vacant bass player position in the new band he was forming, but Stewart declined the invitation. That session guitarist was Jimmy Page, and the band was Led Zeppelin.
16 albums, but prefers the stage
Turning down a spot in Led Zeppelin did nothing to stymie Stewart’s output or legacy as an artist, though. His discography spans from 1967 to present and includes sixteen studio albums and three live ones. In recent years, it has taken on a life of its own, thanks to the practice of sampling in hip-hop and electronic music.
Years ago, Stewart was amazed to find that someone in Canada had sampled an obscure cut of his, “Small Fruit Song,” for a hip-hop tune. His 1976 single, “Year of the Cat,” has been used as a sample in dozens of hip-hop and electronic songs. It recently surfaced in the nu-disco track “Alley Cat” by Volta Bureau and the deep house cut “Come With Me” by Nora En Pure.
“Everybody borrows from everybody else anyway … it doesn’t bother me,” he said, and expressed admiration for people who cover his songs in unique ways.
The current music industry landscape, with its declining record sales and increased reliance on touring, suits him just fine.
“It’s all gone live,” he said. “To me this is great, because I never liked making records in the first place. I like to play live. Making records to me is like going to the dentist — it has to be done but I don’t want to do it.”