Al Stewart Live In London

British folk revivalist wows at the Royal Albert Hall.

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In 1973, Al Stewart suggested that his four previous albums had been his apprenticeship, and that his new one was his thesis. Not very ‘rock’, but then Stewart is the most literary of songwriters, covering topics from history to philosophy, and singing with such fey precision that he might be Keats considering the aesthetic beauty of Hampstead’s flora. If that ‘thesis’ – Past, Present And Future – saw him begin a shift from folk to soft rock, then 1976’s Year Of The Cat was his ‘crossover’ magnum opus.

Exquisitely produced by Alan Parsons, both the signature song and its tributaries remain a textbook display of how to blow listeners’ socks off through subtlety and delicacy, rather than bluster and bombast.

Tonight’s ‘double classic albums concert’ sees Stewart – and a band who know their way around – performing both records in full, with the unassuming frontman telling between-song anecdotes in the manner of an eccentric professor. He was never one to move like Jagger, but he transmits a glow of goodwill through the hall. The perky/profound chronologies of the first album run through the insistent Soho (Needless To Say), the epic Roads To Moscow and a nine‑minute Nostradamus.

After an intermission, the team – including players like guitarist Tim Renwick, drummer Stuart Elliott and Al’s long-time colleague Peter White – return to stroll through Year Of The Cat. Standing out tonight are the mystery and romance of On The Border and Broadway Hotel .

When it comes to the grand finale, our host explains how a lyric about Tony Hancock was nixed by his US label, so he wrote a new one after idly leafing through his girlfriend’s Vietnamese astrology book while half-watching Casablanca on TV. Once again the enigmatic heroine comes out of the sun, running like a watercolour in the rain, and the song flows like a robust yet relaxed river. A spotlight picks out the saxophonist, and euphoria is elegantly induced.

Al then remembers that he and White wrote another million-selling hit, Time Passages, and that’s delivered decorously. This gifted gentleman remains one of our most undervalued national treasures.

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.