In 1976, a small record label released an album by an English folk singer, who had released six albums with only middling success. Year of the Cat was engineered and produced by Alan Parsons, who had engineered many rock albums including Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. The result was one of the most intelligent and best loved albums of the era.
I first heard snippets of the album on a Sunday night radio program. I didn’t know who Al Stewart was, but the mix of the jazzy rock and mysterious lyrics caught my attention. I heard the same advertisement the next week and the melodies, just slivers at that point, stayed in my head. I still didn’t know who Al Stewart was, but I noted the name and the album title in my head. When the album was released, I couldn’t get enough of it. That was 42 years ago. I still love the album but it means more to me because it was my second year in college and my life sprouted wings.
It is now 2018, and Al Stewart, long absent from the radio, but still touring steadily, announces that he’s bringing the entire Year of the Cat album on tour with a full band. You cannot play these songs and have them take flight without the accompaniment of a band. Through the years, Al has toured with bands but not focused on this album. He has also toured with another guitarist and in a small combos, playing “On the Border” and “Year of the Cat”, but playing stripped down versions of these intricate songs. I saw Al in concert once before, in 1986, he was with a band and it was a beautiful concert. I remember the musicianship was superb, and Al is a great showman, telling stories and bringing life to his very historically influenced songs.
I always regretted not seeing Al again in concert, and the one time he came through the area I wasn’t able to match my schedule with his. When I heard he was touring the Cat album, I looked for the closest venue. Salina, Kansas was it. I’ve traveled to Salina for a concert before, and I was strongly considering it, but I held off. Then I learned that Al was playing at the community college in my town. How weird was that? The stars aligned.
The band Al is touring with is named Empty Pockets, a young, four-piece rock band from Chicago. They opened the concert and played for about 40 minutes mixing rock, folk and a bit of country. I was impressed with their musical chops, though they have yet to develop a definable sound.
Al emerged after the break and played several of his well-known songs including “Antarctica” and “Time Passages”. Al is a self-effacing guy, and he is a highly intelligent man who knows his world history. Throughout his career, he was written songs mixing British history with lyrics of romance and faraway adventure. He admits that his first six albums seemed to rely on his record company’s ignorance that they were still paying for him to make records. Little by little, he developed an audience of fans because he folks-influenced songs were good, even if airplay in America was tough to get. Then, Year of the Cat happened. Alan Parsons molded his songs and united him with top-flight musicians including Peter White, Tim Renwick, Stuart Elliott, David Pack, and arranger Andrew Powell. You might recognize Alan Parsons from the Alan Parsons Project, which released 12 studio albums and sold millions of copies.
Year of the Cat remains Al’s high-water career mark. The follow-up album, Time Passages did almost as well. This was followed by 24 Carrots, which did less well, as musical tastes and radio formats were shifting. Al continued to mix his historical perspective into folk-textured soft rock sounds, but the general public was moving on. Al continued to record but released albums less frequently into the 2000s. In a sense, Al was back to his early 1970s career but without the advent of recording new music. He continued to tour and delight fans that knew his music and never tired of his stories. Having played big auditoriums and stadiums in his big hit days, he is made for smaller venues where he can talk with the audience and hear them respond to his stories of writing a particular song, being taught guitar chords by Robert Fripp (King Crimson) or recruited to the bass in Jimmy Page’s new band, or being mistaken for Rod Stewart by a disappointed young fan. Some of his song introductions are nearly two minutes long, but they are worth it.
Year of the Cat, by Al Stewart. All songs written by Al Stewart except where noted.
- “Lord Grenville” – 5:00
- “On the Border” – 3:22
- “Midas Shadow” – 3:08
- “Sand in Your Shoes” – 3:02
- “If it Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave It” – 4:28
- “Flying Sorcery” – 4:20
- “Broadway Hotel” – 3:55
- “One Stage Before” – 4:39
- “Year of the Cat” (Stewart, Peter Wood) – 6:40
I picked up this nice, autographed tour program from Al. Even though it is from a previous tour, it commemorates the Year of the Cat album.