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No Hymns, Just Smart Folk-Rock from Al Stewart

Folk-rock master takes center stage at The Sanctuary Concerts Oct. 27.

Over the past 40-plus years, singer-songwriter-guitarist Al Stewart has created and continues to make sonic art that's not afraid to venture outside of the pop-music beaten path. The Scottish legend—who grew up in England and now lives in California—will bring his singular talents and historically themed classics to Chatham Oct. 27 when he performs as part of The Sanctuary Concerts music series.

"I've played there twice before, I think," Stewart said, adding that he enjoys performing for the renowned folk-centric series. "It doesn't feel much like a church; it feels like a concert hall. I am not tempted to sing hymns."

Stewart is in the middle of a series of performance dates taking him to different parts of the nation, sometimes alone, with a band or, as will be the case in Chatham, with his frequent road accompanist, guitar whiz and major Stewart fan Dave Nachmanoff.

If you are of a certain age, you may recall Stewart's days as a million-selling artist.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, chart-following Americans had their first introduction to Scotland-born Stewart's work, a rich blend of fact-based history; fully drawn characters; realistic and real-life situations; a smattering of sex or politics or war; the artist's own genuine empathy for the all-too-human foibles and follies of people powerful and ordinary; and well-crafted music.

Through the 1960s and early 70s, Stewart had achieved success as a recording artist and performer in the UK folk-pop scene, but his respective 1974 and 1975 LPs "Past, Present and Future" and "Modern Times" grabbed the interest of stateside listeners.

By 1976, Stewart was living in sunny California and the U.S. became enthralled by the musical strains and sensuous lyrics that brought the album and single "Year of the Cat" to life. He followed that with other hits, including "Time Passages," "Song on the Radio" and "Midnight Rocks." 

Music buyers made and kept Stewart a celebrated artist, something more than a mere pop star, through the mid-1980s, when legal matters stalled his recording career for a number of years. 

Those who know his music well are aware that his best songs aren't necessarily the ones that became radio staples. Stewart has a deep and still-growing catalog of songs, and they became his focus when he hit the U.S. and U.K. folk-rock concert circuit in the mid-to-late 1990s and saw a resurgence of his career.

"It's always easier to play for a crowd that's familiar with the songs," he told Patch. "Artists want to play brand-new or obscure things. There's always a trade-off between playing familiar stuff and stuff you're bored with. I try to find a compromise."

Stewart doesn't record as much as he once did—he always has loathed the studio, and these days, a major studio project is prohibitively expensive. He is still writing, however.

"I wrote a song this very week, two or three days ago," he mused. "There isn't really a record market anymore, they've closed all the shops. There is nowhere to take them in a commercial sense. But when I started writing at 13 it was just because I liked to write songs for fun. That's why I do it now."
 
Stewart's most recent composition is, by the artist's own estimation, "a very strange song." It's a love song he said he's fond of that involves a traveling javelin salesman who dabbles in archery goods and supplies and a woman who is his "April surprise." After their breakup, she gets "watery around the eyes watching Robin Hood movies."

"And then the one I wrote this week was a really dark thing about a broken love affair. On this occasion, the girl left him and she immediately got hit by a car."

'I'll follow you into the afterlife where you won't have control…

You're gonna be mine, dead or alive.'

Whether he plays one or both of these tunes or breaks out a Stewart classic like "Roads to Moscow," "On the Border" or "Flying Sorcery" has not yet been decided, he said.

"I haven't really done a reconnaissance tour of what I want to play," said Stewart. "I tend to look at what I haven't played recently and pull some things out of the hat."

He will be sure to promote his most recent recorded projects, however. One is a newly available DVD of a performance he and longtime collaborator Peter White did for the swells of California's Carmel-by-the-Sea. The other is 2008's "Uncorked: Al Stewart Live with Dave Nachmanoff," an acoustic wonder that offers a great preview of what Sanctuary Concerts attendees will experience Oct. 27.

On most occasions, Stewart still enjoys performing as much as fans enjoy watching and listening to him.

"I think we still like doing it," he said. "I'm very surprised I'm still on the road. I started (playing gigs in his boyhood home of Bournemouth, England) at 17, and I just turned 67. You would think you'd stop at some point.

"My thought is that no one retires from this business, it retires you. While there are gigs to do, you do them. You've got to pay the bills. And it would be churlish not to go and play. I've certainly had a lot of practice. And look at [blues legend] B.B. King—he's in his 80s, and he's phenomenal. You do it as long as you can.

"It's too late to take up professional basketball."

Al Stewart with special guest Dave Nachmanoff plays The Sanctuary Concerts at the Presbyterian Church in Chatham at 240 Southern Blvd. on Oct. 27 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25. For more information and tickets, call 973-376-4946 or send e-mail to boxoffice@sanctuaryconcerts.org.

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