Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Al Stewart “Year of the Cat”
If You Go
- What: Al Stewart
- When: 8 p.m. Friday
- Where: Chrome Showroom, Santa Fe Station
- Admission: $19-$29; 767-7771, santafestationlasvegas.com
Beyond the Sun
You might want to bring your Scrabble dictionary along to an Al Stewart show. The English singer-songwriter is known for fitting polysyllabic words like “plenipotentiary” and “amanuensis” into pop songs.
Stewart’s verbal mastery and penchant for lengthy ballads with historic themes — performed acoustically and sung in an upper-crusty English accent — make his concerts something of an anomaly in Las Vegas, where entertainments depending on a comprehension of English lyrics don’t have a stellar track record.
Still, Stewart has proved enough of a draw to play the Station Casinos at least once a year for the past decade or so, and he makes his way back to Santa Fe Station on Friday.
“I don’t think it’s just in Vegas that shows that emphasize the English language are not going to play very well,” Stewart says on the phone from his home in Los Angeles. “It’s a lot easier to listen to K.C. and the Sunshine Band, as I would be the first to admit.”
Having said that, Stewart notes that he doesn’t consider a Vegas audience much different from one in Cincinnati or Amsterdam.
“You’re always going to have a little trouble with ‘plenipotentiary,’ ” he says and laughs. “I don’t know what you would call what I do — historical folk rock?” Stewart says of his four-decade, 19-album career. “But whatever I’m doing, I’m the only one doing it. If you wanted to go out to a disco, you wouldn’t necessarily come to one of my concerts. You don’t take Ecstasy and come to an Al Stewart concert.”
Then Stewart, who is as chatty and funny as he is erudite, worries that this will make his show sound intimidating or elitist.
“It isn’t really an English language class,” Stewart jokes. “Although sometimes I think I’m actually teaching a history class up there on stage.”
Stewart’s songs have mostly been remembrances of times past, spanning decades, centuries and eons. He’s best known to the general public for his lushly produced pop hits of the mid-’70s, “Year of the Cat” and “Time Passages,” and even those were atmospherically steeped in the ever-present past.
More representative are moody, expansive ballads like “Nostradamus,” the 16th century seer who is said to have predicted the rise and fall of both Napoleon and Hitler, and “Roads to Moscow,” about the German invasion of Russia in World War II, from the point of view of a Russian soldier.
Stewart’s most recent album, “Sparks of Ancient Light,” contains songs about Lord Salisbury, the first British prime minister of the 20th century, and about an ancient Carthaginian navigator. The most contemporaneous song, “Shah of Shahs,” is based on Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book about the Iranian revolution in the 1970s.
Although he might be said to be living in the past, Stewart contends he is raptly observing the present global historical moment. But don’t expect songs addressing Obama’s challenges or Bush’s failures or the world economic crisis to surface anytime soon.
“I normally like to have at least 50 years between me and what I’m writing about,” Stewart says. “History is written by the winners, after all, and you need to get far enough away from it so you can get away from what contemporary thinking is. There’s a wonderful saying: Someone asked a historian about what would happen in the future. And he said, ‘Oh, the future’s easy. It’s the past that keeps changing.’ ” The notion sets Stewart chuckling.
“The odd thing about history, which is why I love it, is that things that look like disasters on the surface have bright sides that you can’t see at the time,” Stewart says. “For example, the Great Depression resulted in the complete overhaul of the infrastructure of America.”
So Stewart advises taking the long view of current events when possible, an outlook that can provide a bit of consoling perspective, if not immediate comfort.
“If you can withdraw yourself enough from the thing — to see that A) it’s probably natural, and B) it’s probably not totally a bad thing — then you can just sort of cruise along with history and say ‘OK, this is interesting, where are we going?’ ”
Although present days may seem grim, these are perhaps the best of times, he says.
“If I had a time wheel in front of me with the last 6,000 years of civilization on it, and I threw a hatchet at it, and I had to take whatever the date was, there is no better time that I could have lived in. I mean, could you imagine living in 1348, with the Black Plague and the 100 Years War?”
Enjoy it now — our current relative peace and material prosperity won’t last, Stewart concludes, with a bit of Nostradamus about him.
“Human beings are basically warlike, and I think that a lot of people around the planet are just itching to get on with the next major conflict. Rather like the Los Angeles earthquake, it’s been put off for a long time. But it won’t be put off forever,” he says with a laugh.
Which will one day make for another album of insightful and infernally hummable Al Stewart songs — if you can wait another few decades or so.