The growing grassroots embrace of Al Stewart’s music, old and new, is nothing less than a new-millennium phenomenon. Ten years ago, he was 20 years past his Year of the Cat success. He was still recording and performing, but budgets were small and audiences were populated by the rabid and the nostalgic.
What a difference a decade makes. Each season brings performances at ever-larger venues and longer tour itineraries. Sellouts are common, and more than nostalgia motivates concertgoers, who love Stewart classics like “Roads to Moscow” and “Ivich” and also look forward to his new music. It keeps Stewart a vital artist, news known to more and more people every year.
Thank technology for Al Stewart’s resurgence as an appreciated singer, guitarist, and songwriter. Using the Internet as a pathway, increasing numbers of people — some old fans, some newbies — have been able to rediscover Stewart’s literate, melodic works or to hear and fall in love with them for the first time. Through collectives like the Al Stewart Mailing List (founded by Muffy Barkocy, it’s spread the Gospel of Al since the Internet’s early days) and the Al Stewart Friends Yahoogroup, the ‘Net serves as news conduit and gathering place. Web sites such as Al Stewart – Now and the recently shuttered Page 27 Al Stewart Archives (check it out via Google cache), which lovingly presented all manner of Stewart information. From the turn of the millennium, fans could find information about tour dates and new releases more easily than before the wired world went massive, news that went ’round the globe in an instant.
If top honors are to be awarded for pushing the renewed interest in Stewart’s work — beyond the primary credit of course due to the artist himself — the most deserving would be two individuals, both diehard Stewart aficionados who became friends of Al: webmaster and newsletter editor Kim Dyer and Stewart biographer Neville Judd, who produces and markets approved Stewart audio and video recordings and other Stewart collectibles.
I’ll be politically incorrect and go with “ladies first”:
The direct-mail newsletter Chronicles historically spread the word on all things Al. Founded and edited since the mid-1970s by writer David Dasch, Kim Dyer took the reins in 1995 at the request of Stewart’s manager, Steve Chapman. Since then, she has branched out, establishing and teaching herself Web design to create and maintain the official Al Stewart Web site, a font of constantly updated information on Stewart’s recordings, tour schedules, photos, collectible news, and altruism opportunities.
Handling the Web site, publishing the newsletter, and promoting Al through the Stewart e-mail lists make for one mighty big second job. It helps that Dyer is passionate about Stewart music.
“I discovered Al while I was in college like a lot of his fans. I’ll admit Year of the Cat was the first thing of his I’d heard, but within a month I was trying to track down the import albums,” she says via e-mail. “That was quite a task back in the mid-70s, and it wasn’t until years later that I managed to track down Zero She Flies, Orange and Bedsitter Images. I just fell in love the literate lyrics and the images he paints with words.”
“Love” isn’t the half of it. This was passion. A telling example: In pre-Internet days, finding out news of concert dates was often a difficult enterprise. Dyer wasn’t able to make her dream of seeing a Stewart show come true until the late 1990s. The Gateway to the West was the destination. She drove from her Michigan home to pick up another fan in Indianapolis, and from there motored to St. Louis.
“I probably put 1,000 miles on my car just for the one show,” she says. “I used to be slightly chagrined at the fact that I’ve actually flown across the Atlantic to see a concert, but there are actually quite a few people who travel great distances for the shows. I know of people from Australia and New Zealand who have come to the US and UK for shows.”
In fairness to the intelligent, engaging, and quite sane Dyer, I’ll admit that I’ve gone across the pond to see Stewart in concert. “Meeting” online, she and I came face-to-face in England during his 1999 UK tour. And we weren’t the only faraway fans: I recall encountering people from Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Germany, each as passionate as Dyer and myself. But we crossed an ocean.
Neville Judd outdoes Kim and me by quite a bit, having crossed the ocean blue numerous times in pursuit of his passion: documenting the musical journey of Al Stewart. I first met Judd, who lives in England, that fall in 1999 as well. He was there to document the dates for posterity, as he often does on Al tours. In fact, he just sent me an e-mail: Al is playing The Old Theater of Oriental in Oriental, North Carolina, tonight; Neville is driving him to the show.
Judd’s Al-addiction began after the release of the seminal Stewart classic Modern Times. “I heard ‘Roads to Moscow’ on Alan Freeman’s Saturday afternoon show on Radio One in the UK in 1973,” he recalls via e-mail. “So I went to shows on that Tour and was hooked! Completely. Still am.”
Asked about his favorite concert experience, he pauses. “Impossible to answer. Maybe the day that Yoko got in touch and said that she wanted to help with the Book. It’s not every day that a Beatle wife gives you a call!”
The Book would be Al Stewart: True-Life Adventures of a Folk-Rock Troubadour, Judd’s 2002 authorized biography, which features interviews with the artist himself, his mum, and many of his friends and contemporaries, among them the aforementioned Mrs. Lennon. Given extraordinary access to Stewart’s old poems, notebooks, and photographs, Judd produced a detailed recounting of the songwriter’s life and career story.
Long before then, though, in 1984 to be exact, David Dasch asked journalist Judd to write articles for Chronicles. [Note: The author has been published in Chronicles as well.] This led to Judd going into the Al business. “People began writing to me asking where they could get Orange in Eastern Europe etc., and this became both a time consuming (no problem with that) but also costly undertaking (sending 50 letters’ postage worldwide each week adds up),” he says, explaining his move into producing and marketing Stewart CDs, videos and DVDs under the label Tess Films (named for his favorite movie) and promoting them via Stewart concerts and a UK newsletter he called Jackdaw. “So the distribution of things such as [Stewart CD compilation] To Whom It May Concern [for which Judd contributed the liner notes] and the Rarities CDs were initiated to subsidise all this.”
The Stewart-approved venture does more than produce revenue for Judd. Much of the artist’s unreleased material existed on aging, deteriorating tape stock or cassette tape. In fact, the idea for starting Tess Films was motivated by a desire to restore the old recordings for preservation’s sake. “The initial premise of cleaning up the tracks and saving them was to do it for archive purposes in case EMI or another label were interested in releasing it all,” he says. “Unfortunately the sales that they would get off the songs are not, apparently, anywhere near the number needed for them to justify producing a deluxe box set or even a small SLAGIATT-type release of the material.” SLAGIATT is the acronym for Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time, the venerated (in Stewart-fan circles) Laurence Juber and James Jensen-produced limited-run disc set on the label Acoustic Music Resource; it offers rarities, outtakes, and alternate lyrics to well-known songs. (In the mainstream market, Rhino Records has done what EMI and Stewart’s other previous labels have not done – remastered and re-released his back catalog for CD.)
Tess’ biggest boost has come from the combination of Internet promotion via previously mentioned sites and e-lists, Kim Dyer’s Chronicles and AlStewart.com, Jackdaw, Judd’s own site, and the Book.
“I had always suggested to Al that I should write his biography. Plans were so far advanced that in 1984, in a bizarre moment of coincidence backstage at Al’s Royal Albert Hall show, I told [singer-songwriter] Dave Nachmanoff that I was going to write Al’s biography one day and he told me that he was going to be Al’s guitar player.”
Life is stranger: Nachmanoff is now a frequent opening act for Stewart on the road these days. And Judd was able to overcome Stewart’s reluctance to have his life story immortalized in print:
“Al was never that keen on the idea of a book but eventually he came around and I went out and got the book deal with [publisher] Helter Skelter. I left my job as a manager of a large London bookstore and spent four years interviewing people all over the world and having a total blast doing it. Al would read the latest draft every six months and off I’d go again.”
The Internet is a huge part of serving the mission of Al, to which both Dyer and Judd are dedicated. After remaining strictly snail-mail long after it was trendy to have a Web presence, Judd finally made the leap in 1994. NevilleJudd.com offers Stewart approved bootleg audio and video recordings along with CDs and DVDs of a number of his live concerts. Also available: the Book and its follow-up, TK, photos by Lori Stoll, a fan registry, T-shirts and more. Currently, the site is promoting its forthcoming Grace Cathedral concert DVD and the biography’s photo-focused companion, Lights… Camera… Folk-Rock.
“Most fans find [NevilleJudd.com] when we hand out the site’s address at gigs,” Judd says. “We made a real effort to get as many new fans on board in the period between Down in the Cellar and A Beach Full of Shells as possible and I went to 70 percent of Al’s gigs during that time.”
He says most of his rarities customers are either completist collectors or Year of the Cat-era fans who rediscover the artist after having lost touch with his work. But he confirms that there is a growing stream of folks picking up copies of the newest recordings (DITC, ABFOS). Judd credits Stewart’s support team. “EMI (his British label), Appleseed (his US label), Skyline Booking (US), Asgard (UK) are all great. In the past, Al has not always had such a fab team. Now he does.
Factor in Steve Chapman, who is an amazing manager,” Judd continues. “And of course Kim’s work for the past decade along with the Internet, and someone like Al can have a high profile, around the globe, far easier than not so long ago.”
Kim Dyer would concur. Her AlStewart.com, the artist’s official Web site, presents information about the singer-songwriter’s current releases and concert schedule. Fans can also find Al-related links, album and song lyrics, guitar tabs, and the occasional surprise. You can also subscribe to the snail-mail newsletter via the site. “The Chronicles is $8/year for folks in the US and Canada, and $11/year for folks overseas. That hasn’t gone up in 10 years, so you know I’m not doing it for profit. There is a link to Amazon.com on the web site, and the small referral fee I get when people use that link to make their purchases has helped cover the printing, postage and other expenses.”
Dyer credits her site with helping reconnect fans with Stewart and his music, a job made much easier with his career upswing. “Back when I started doing the Chronicles, there were times when I didn’t have a single concert to announce when I went to press,” she says. “This year we announced dates on the 2006 UK tour just weeks after he returned from the 2005 tour — and we already have a 2007 date announced. When I first started doing the Web site, there were venues Al played in the UK where the ‘dressing room’ was the loo in the petrol station across the street. In 2005, he played the Barbican, the home of the London Symphony. In 2006, he’s booked into the Royal Albert Hall in London.”
The range of Stewart’s growing fan base is nothing less than amazing, according to Dyer. “I hear from highly educated people all over the world who have loved Al’s music for decades — and they are thrilled to find out he’s still performing and recording. I also hear from college students who grew up with his work, or were introduced to it by a roommate who had,” she says. “I remember one concert where a whole bunch of guys in leathers rode up on their Harleys for a concert. Afterwards they were all in line holding well-worn copies of Al’s albums to be autographed. I’ve seen 10-year-olds who know all the words to “Roads to Moscow’ and people in their 70’s dancing to ‘Night Train to Munich.’ It’s something else, it really is.”
To what does Dyer attribute Stewart’s resurgence? “I think what happens is people go to their FIRST Al show out of a sense of nostalgia. They remember sitting around with friends and hearing “Year of the Cat” or “Time Passages” or “Roads to Moscow” or something and figure it might be nice to rekindle those memories,” she suggest. “Then they go to a show and see there is a lot more to Al’s work than a handful of hits. They tell their friends and drag them kicking and screaming to the next concert. Those people become fans, and drag their friends kicking and screaming to the next concert, and it just keeps growing. The passion of Al’s fans is contagious.”
Get more info on Al Stewart here.
Other Blogcritics Al Stewart April 2006 features:
April 1: For Your Consideration, Al Stewart (aka Al 101)
Stewart’s music propels both body and brain into motion. Whether his song exposes a young man’s romantic (or not-so-romantic) longings during the swinging ’60s; laments the fate of a strung-out, washed-up, never-was ’70s girl singer; presents the love of a couple nearly a century ago against a backdrop of impending world war; notes the steel-gray loneliness of present-day political candidates, it kick-starts one’s senses.
In defiance of economic theory, A Beach Full of Shells offers increasing returns with each listen. … [I]f you have yet to discover the talents of Al Stewart, whatever your age or genre of choice, [here is] a perfect opportunity.
It is clear from page one that [the author] is passionate about music and about singer-songwriter Al Stewart in particular. Thank goodness for the novice writer’s enthusiasm: His passion is what carries the reader through 312 densely packed pages of often-amusing anecdotes, free-flowing factoids, and the occasional surprise from the life story of the only artist from the ’60s British folk-roots scene to score two LPs in the US Top Thirty.
April 12: Backstage with Al Stewart, New York City, 1998: A peek at the gifted singer-songwriter before the resurgence of his popularity – self-doubting and unaware of how appreciated he is.
“…[Y]ou were fine out there tonight.”