Local favorite Al Stewart returns

The British folk singer, best known for the hit Year of the Cat, returns to Philadelphia to promote his latest album, Down in the Cellar, which focuses on his love of wine.

By Bill McFarland

Northeast Times Staff Writer

Al Stewart returns to town next week to resume his affair with the city that loves you back. He is slated for two shows at The Point, 880 W. Lancaster Ave. in Bryn Mawr, on Tuesday.

The British folk singer has made many appearances in the area over the years, and part of it has to do with the fact that Philadelphia was one of the first markets that embraced the artist in the early stages of his career.

"Yes, definitely," Stewart said during a telephone interview. "Philadelphia was probably one of the best places for me because (radio station) WMMR was playing my records. Outside of Philadelphia and Seattle, nobody else was playing my music."

The time was 1974, and Stewart had already released four albums in England that weren't very successful. His fifth effort, Past, Present and Future, was his first record released in America.

"That one sold more records than my first four records combined," said Stewart. "It did quite well in America."

The album also helped the artist to develop a cult following, much of it centered in the City of Brotherly Love. One of his first local appearances was at the Spectrum in early 1974.

"I remember it well," Stewart said. "That was a funny night because they were three hours late. They had been in Toronto the previous night."

The "they" in this case was the Electric Light Orchestra. ELO was making the transition from the mid-range to the larger venues, and Stewart opened for them at the band's first Spectrum gig. Unfortunately, ELO's equipment was delayed in transit from Canada, and the show didn't begin until nearly 11 p.m.

A few months later, Stewart played to a packed house at the more-intimate Main Point, which used to be near the venue where he will appear next week. Within a year, the singer would be headlining concerts at the Tower Theater after the release of Modern Times, which cracked the Billboard Top-40 album chart in 1975.

Modern Times also marked Stewart's first effort with producer Alan Parsons, who seemed to bring a Midas Touch to the artist's work. Parsons also produced 1976's Year of the Cat and 1978's Time Passages. Both albums went platinum (1 million units sold), and each of them contained two hit singles the title tracks and On the Border and Song on the Radio, respectively.

The Al Stewart story begins in 1945. The musician was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and his family moved to Bournemouth on the southern coast of England (near Southampton) when he was very young. In the seaside town, Stewart frequented a local music store where he socialized with other aspiring musicians who also eventually became successful, including Andy Summers (The Police), Robert Fripp (King Crimson) and Greg Lake (Emerson, Lake & Palmer).

"We were all kids (at the time)," Stewart recalled. "We had some good times. Greg Lake and I nearly formed a band together."

In 1965, Stewart moved to London to work at the Les Cousins folk club in Soho, first as a host and then as a performer. Once be began recording, other artists who also found future fame worked on some of Stewart's early records, including Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), Rick Wakeman (Yes), Phil Collins (Genesis) and Roger Taylor (Queen).

"I think Phil Collins was already in Genesis when I first worked with him," said Stewart. "Jimmy was in the process of forming Led Zeppelin at the time."

Stewart finally achieved fame first in America, and then all over the world, with the hit albums in the 1970s, but he has yet to do so in his homeland.

"To this day, I've never had a hit in England," he said. "Year of the Cat was a hit everywhere else except England."

The artist continued to record over the next two decades. He released several albums in the 1980s, including Russians and Americans and Last Days of the Century, and the '90s (Rhymes In Rooms, Famous Last Words). For his 16th album, 1995's Between the Wars, Stewart began collaborating with guitarist Lawrence Juber, who formerly played in Paul McCartney's band, Wings.

"We were sitting around playing guitars, and that record just evolved," explained Stewart. "We put a song down on his home recorder, and it sounded pretty good, so we decided to do another one. Then we just kept going, and pretty soon we had about half an album of material. We didn't actually start out to make an album."

But the collaboration was enjoyable enough that Juber also produced Stewart's latest effort, Down in the Cellar. The artist has long been an avid wine collector, and this release capitalizes on that interest. The track listings include the title song, Tasting History, Turning It Into Water and Under a Winestained Moon.

"I was approached by Miramar Records and asked to do a wine album," Stewart explained. "Then Miramar went bankrupt, so I was left with a wine album and no label. I sent the record to EMI, and they put it out everywhere except the U.S.A. and Canada. I made the record for the American market, and you can't get it in record stores here. You can get it on the Internet at places like Amazon.com."

You can also get some at Stewart's live performances, so if you're a fan of wine or the singer, or both, make it a point to get to The Point.

This story was published on June 6, 2001, in the Northeast Times in Philadelphia, which owns the copyright. It may not be reproduced anywhere else without permission.

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