Review and photos by Fred Kuhlman
Venue: Musical Instrument Museum (MIM)
Date: Thursday, Nov 16, 2017
I first heard of Al Stewart when one of his songs was played on KDKB radio here in Phoenix back in 1975. In 1976 I was lucky enough to see his band at the Celebrity Theater where they performed Year of The Cat. We now fast forward 40 years and Al has come back to Phoenix to recreate his 40 year old masterpiece. If you were one of the luck few to have seen Al perform this last Thursday or Friday night at the MIM, then you saw a truly amazing performance. If you missed it, then you still have a chance to see him perform it again, but this time in Tucson at the Rialto Theatre on January 19th. For those luck few at the MIM, you got probably one of the best sounding concerts I have heard in the past 10 years. I have sometimes commented about the sound quantity at some of the shows I have seen. Either the band was too loud or the lead singer’s voice was overdriven. I can honestly say that the performance I saw at the MIM on Thursday night was the best sound mix yet. The band and Al’s voice were perfectly mixed and I could understand everything Al sang. For a singer/songwriter like AL Stewart, his lyrics are everything and if you don’t hear them clearly, then you miss out on a lot. Kudos to Al, The Empty Pockets and the sound board people for an outstanding job.
For me, Al created 3 great albums of the 70s, Modern Times, Year of The Cat and Time Passages. Tonight, we were lucky enough to hear Year of The Cat in its entirety. Last year Al performed an acoustic version of his songs at the MIM and played a few of the songs from the album. But this time he performed with a full rock band backing him. I liked the acoustic show, but for me, the real power of his music is with a full band backing him up. If you are new to Al Stewart’s music, it is a combination of folk/rock with a historical theme. During the encore Al brings out a poster that contains 168 historical characters that he has mentioned in his songs. He has a standing bet with anyone that can name all 168 people in the poster. So far only 1 person got close with 1 miss and Al himself missed 30.
The show started with a fairly new band out of the Chicago area called The Empty Pockets. It is a 4-piece band lead by husband and wife team, Josh Solomon on guitar and Erika Brett on keyboards. They both share lead vocals duties, but Erika has the better voice (IMHO). They are joined by Nate Bellon on bass and drummer Danny Rosenthal. Their music is a range of Americana, Rock, Blues and Soul. They performed 8 songs as their set and had Marc Macisso join them when they played “Barstool”.
It was now time for Al Stewart to join The Empty Pockets on stage. They were also joined by Marc Macisso, who provided flute, percussion and sax. This is where I believe that this show was better since the original studio version of Year of The Cat had a full band with a sax. Al started his set with “Sirens of Titan”. He then told us about the next song, “Antarctica” which wasn’t really about the place but instead was about a woman. The crowd really responded when they played “Time Passages” with Marc providing his first sax solo. This was the first of many standing ovations. Now Al started the first song from Year of The Cat, “Lord Grenville”. During the entire performance, Al Stewart played acoustic guitar. Al also provided all of the lead vocals for his songs. Like I previously mentioned, his voice was clear and I could understand everything. Three of my favorite Al Stewart songs are on this album, “On The Border”, Broadway Hotel” and the title track, “Year of The Cat”. They completed the main set with “Year of The Cat” where Marc disappeared from the stage and came out into the audience and wondered around playing his sax. The crowd gave them a standing ovation.
The band came back on stage for the encore. First Al Stewart and Erika Brett held up the poster of characters in his songs and Al talked about it. They then played “Valentina Way”. For the last song, the band left and Al performed “In Brooklyn” as an acoustic solo. Having seen Al Stewart and his original band back in 1976, I can say that tonight’s version was just as good. Al’s voice is still strong and clear and the rest of the band recreated the original sound of the songs perfectly. It was truly an enjoyable evening and the crowd loved it.
I got to talk to both Josh and Erika after the show and told them how good they sounded. They said that the MIM theater was probably one of the best acoustically sounding venues they had played at this tour with Al. We also talked about what they learned from touring with a professional musician like Al Stewart. They said that they learned a lot from just the management of touring, to Al’s incredible song writing and story teller to his professionalism. You could tell that they were extremely happy to have the opportunity to have AL Stewart as a mentor. I hope that this tour will help them breakout into a larger audience.
Photos © Fred Kuhlman 2017
Al Stewart’s Setlist: (Album)
Sirens of Titan (Modern Times)
Antarctica (Last Days of the Century)
Time Passages (Time Passages)
Lord Grenville (Year Of The Cat)
On The Border (Year Of The Cat)
Midas Shadow (Year Of The Cat)
Sand In Your Shoes (Year Of The Cat)
If It Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave It (Year Of The Cat)
Flying Sorcery (Year Of The Cat)
Broadway Hotel (Year Of The Cat)
One Stage Before (Year Of The Cat)
Year Of The Cat (Year Of The Cat)
Valentina Way (Time Passages)
In Brooklyn (Love Chronicles)
The Empty Pocket
Photos © Fred Kuhlman 2017
The Empty Pockets Setlist: (Album)
Find or Fail (Find or Fail)
I Am Strong (Voices)
You Know I Do (Find or Fail)
I Hear Your Voice (Find or Fail)
The Barstool (Find or Fail)
Naysays and Maybes (Find or Fail)
I’ll Follow You (Voices)
Travellin’ Song (Find or Fail)