Al Stewart's first all-acoustic live recording since 1992's Rhymes In Rooms is a little like reconnecting with an old friend.
Although not entirely unexpected, it's still a welcome reminder of just how fine a talent the one-time "Year Of The Cat" hit-maker really is. Especially when left alone in a room to do his thing unadorned by the strings and over-production of some of those records made back when Stewart filled arenas, rather than the smaller, folkier venues where he was recorded here.
On Uncorked, Stewart and his musical counterpart Dave Nachmanoff are simply two guys with their acoustic guitars — but together they create a surprisingly big noise. The smaller arrangements sound every bit as rich and full here, in a small setting, as on their studio counterparts, thanks to both a marvelously clear and crisp recording, and even more to just how well the two jell together as guitarists.
And that is really the most delightful surprise here. Although Stewart is known primarily for his songwriting talents, this is as much of a showcase for the guitar as it is for the rich wordplay of his songs. The main disappointment is that once Stewart and Nachmanoff really get going, it's not often clear just who is playing which part because they blend so well together.
"Last Days of The Century," for example, is at first propelled by what I presume to be Nachmanoff playing the bass part, with Stewart (again presumably) playing lead. Before long though, the two of them are ferociously trading solos in a blinding blur with all the deftness of Beck and Page in the Yardbirds, causing the audience to break into spontaneous applause at various points.
On "News from Spain," Nachmanoff plays Rick Wakeman's piano solo from the studio version — an "unenviable task" Stewart jokes — on guitar, and totally nails it.
But lest we forget his songwriting talents, this album also provides a worthy reminder that Al Stewart is one of music's more literate historical storytellers. Song titles from his catalog like "Palace of Versailles" and "Old Admirals" only hint at the rich escape lying within.
At their best, Stewart's songs are like rich tapestries originating from such places as 16th Century European battlefields ("Coldest Winter"). The stories are mostly told in the first person, and in such ways as to actually transport you there. Stewart's voice has also never sounded better.
Many of the songs here will be unfamiliar to more casual fans — an intentional decision by the artists, so there would be no overlap between this and the previous live album. So there's no "Year Of The Cat," "Nostradamus," or "Roads To Moscow". However, for the more devoted fans, Stewart does dig deep enough into the well to pull out chestnuts like "Bedsitter Images" and "Carol."
Whether you are already a fan, or you just love great songs, rich storytelling, and some unexpectedly wicked guitar playing, Uncorked is a wonderful new album from an old friend.