Home Live Review Live Review: Al Stewart w/ The Empty Pockets @ The Birchmere — 5/2/24

Live Review: Al Stewart w/ The Empty Pockets @ The Birchmere — 5/2/24

Live Review: Al Stewart w/ The Empty Pockets @ The Birchmere — 5/2/24
Al Stewart performs at The Birchmere on May 2, 2024. (Photo by James Todd Miller)

“A lot of my songs are geographical,” Al Stewart recently told the audience at The Birchmere. “People say they’re historical, but they’re actually geographical.”

Editor’s note: Some of the mature humor in this review may not be suitable for all audiences.

Stewart then told the story of Captain Scott, who in 1903, was charged by the British admiralty — Al did his best impression of a British admiral, “which I can do because of my education” — with going to the South Pole. Scott tried to make his way there with five companions, and they all perished. He became something of a national hero. An Irishman named Shackleton would make the attempt to reach the South Pole three times, never succeeding.

For all of this tale of exploration, the song Stewart was introducing — “Antarctica” had nothing to do with that. Instead, it’s about “a very cold woman who wouldn’t sleep with me.” (We’ve all been there.)

Throughout his set at The Birchmere on May 2, Stewart was backed by Chicago band The Empty Pockets. In one of the funniest, most entertaining bits I’ve ever seen, the bass player did a dead-on impression of Rodney Dangerfield meeting Gollum.

The set opened with “You Should Have Listened to Al.” “That’s a song I wrote 55 years ago,” Al Stewart said. “As a band, we’ve never played that before.” After “Antarctica,” he asked, rhetorically, “Why am I wearing this sweater?” and explained that someone who reviewed one of his shows recently said he looked like a schoolteacher. “What’s wrong with schoolteachers?” He decided to lean into the look.

Next up was “The Palace of Versailles,” which Stewart described as “an overview of all the French Revolutions. There are more of them than I can count.” During the most recent in 1968, he explained, students in Paris drove out President de Gaulle. Somehow, this led to a story about the British Prime Minister Harold McMillan and de Gaulle, who met to discuss Britain’s entry into the Common Market, which de Gaulle had blocked. They were at dinner with their wives, and Mrs. McMillan asked Mrs. de Gaulle what she most desired in life. “A penis,” she replied. After a moment of stone cold silence, President de Gaulle said, “In English, it’s pronounced ‘happiness.'”

Watch a young Al Stewart perform “Palace of Versailles” live for Top Pop on YouTube:

The show continued with “Time Passages” and “On The Border,” after which Stewart talked about the passing of legendary guitarist Duane Eddy and the immense influence he’d had over so many musicians. When he was learning guitar, there was only one player in his village to learn from: a 15-year-old Robert Fripp, who taught Al a few things. After “Midas Shadow” and “Modern Times,” Stewart introduced “Almost Lucy” as a song about “growing up in the English folk scene,” mentioning artists like Nick Drake, Sandy Denny, and Richard Thompson, “who never got as famous in the US as they should have.” Erica, the keyboardist in The Empty Pockets, sang lead.

Al Stewart wound things up with his most popular song, “The Year of the Cat.”

Stream “Year of the Cat” by Al Stewart on YouTube:

When Stewart came back for his encore, he talked about how, in the late 19th and early 20th century, presidential candidates would travel from town on trains, speaking to “farmers.” They didn’t have microphones, he noted, so they had to shout. When he ran in 1896, William McKinley, a Republican, was opposed by Democrat William Jennings, who had no chance of winning. (In addition to losing three presidential races, he later lost the Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee.) Because McKinley knew he was going to win, he decided he wasn’t going to travel around speaking, instead sitting out on his front porch, where he would meet with anyone who wanted to talk him. Stewart said McKinley had the right idea — he inspired “Like William McKinley” — even if he was assassinated a few years later.

Before they backed up Stewart, The Empty Pockets opened the show with a set of their own, kicking things off with “Gotta Find The Moon.” The keyboardist sang the next one, and then they did a new song, “Queen of LA.” They explained that it belongs “to a genre that’s about 1,000 years old, the murder ballad.” The story tells the true tale of a turn-of-the-century murder. “Because we’re from the Midwest,” they said (Chicago, specifically), “it starts in Milwaukee and ends in LA.”

After the murder ballad, they did an instrumental, then covered the Beatles’ “Oh, Darling,” mentioning they had recorded at Abbey Road. The set also included “Make It Through.”

Al’s been doing this for a long time — since the ’60s — and his experience and skill shown through at The Birchmere. With decades of songs to work with, the evening was full of great tunes, and his stories and banter were first-rate. It was an excellent show by a veteran performer everyone should be sure to catch while they still can.

Here are some photos of The Empty Pockets opening Al Stewart at The Birchmere on May 2, 2024. All pictures copyright and courtesy of James Todd Miller.



And here are some photos of Al Stewart headlining The Birchmere on May 2, 2024. All pictures copyright and courtesy of James Todd Miller.



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