Not quite nine lives for
Story and Photos By Andy ArgyrakisRegardless if it's fair or not, Glasgow born singer/songwriter Al Stewart has been lumped into the one hit wonder category for his breakthrough single "Year of the Cat." The mid-1970s AM radio staple provided a fresh breath of air in a world bogged down with the likes of Bread, Dan Hill, Paul Davis and a seemingly endless spread of generic, faceless, love struck, adult contemporary tunesmiths. But after the fluke American breakthrough the unexpected star achieved, he's often been discounted as a musical lightweight confined to a soggy and somber time period worth forgetting all together.
However, while kicking off the Morton Arboretum's summer concert series in suburban Chicagoland, the performer set the record straight that he never intended to ride that sappy singer/songwriter wave. "I've always been considered a folk singer and a storyteller back home," he shared with the crowd, most of whom were undoubtedly there to hear "Year of the Cat." "In fact the first six albums I made never got released in America and then I had that breakthrough. I've never abandoned my folk roots, I just took a detour and am thankful for the money."
That lighthearted attitude earned the balding, sunglasses bearing finger picker some much needed merit and as he began to unload songs like "Nostradamus" and "Submarine," it was apparent Stewart considered himself a disciple of Dylan, or at least more realistically, a close match to say Cat Stevens or James Taylor. And believe it or not, despite the inevitable "Year of the Cat" (which earned thunderous applause and supporting vocals) there were a couple other songs that must have made it to radio at some point. The simple strums of both "Time Passages" and "Soho (Needless to Say)" were sure to prompt concertgoers with a similar mental response: "Yeah, I have heard those before, I just didn't realize he sang them."
Aside from such surprises, Stewart's set still had its flaws, most of which revolved around his tiresome banter that often went in meaningless circles. He told a difficult to follow story about a man who attempted walking to the south pole while introducing the song "Antarctica" and then he changed topics all together and said that track was actually about getting turned down cold after a romantic proposition. Other reflections included the artist's love for fine wines, bizarre references to obscure foreign political leaders and even a track sung through the eyes of dead Bolsheviks socializing in hell. Though such songs seemed like permanent placements in the set list (as inferred by several hoots and hollers) the odd nature could possibly be reasoned by Stewart's admitted jet lag. "I just came out here after 12 shows in London," he said while rubbing his eyes. "Forgive me if I'm a bit off track, but it would be about one in the morning over there."
More noteworthy than those moments was the venue itself, which is nestled in several acres of forest preserve greenery, akin to Ravinia in Highland Park. The stage was set against a backdrop of tall trees and neatly mowed grass with onlookers sitting festival style in lawn chairs or blankets. Acoustically, the environment was pristine and with the view of a setting sun in the foreground, the Morton Arboretum could very well become a thriving concert establishment. Following Stewart's performance, that series continues with a solo set by Men at Work lead singer Colin Hay on July 9th. For more information, visit www.mortonarb.org or call (630) 968-0074 or (630) 719-2465.
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