AL STEWART: UNCORKED (2009)
1) Last Days Of The Century / Constantinople; 2) Coldest Winter; 3) Warren Harding; 4) News From Spain; 5) Bedsitter Images; 6) Midas Shadow; 7) Running Man; 8) Palace Of Versailles; 9) Auctioning Dave (story); 10) Princess Olivia; 11) Life In Dark Water; 12) Carol; 13) Old Admirals.
Stewart's penchant for guitar-sparring as a major artistic incentive continues with a new twist: at the end of the first decade of the century, after Peter White and Lawrence Juber, his new partner is Dave Nachmanoff, a somewhat obscure, but critically respected folk musician / singer / songwriter with a PhD in philosophy and, most likely, numerous other fine qualities that remain hidden from the general public.
The newly-formed duo's first joint appearance on record is with Uncorked (another transparent allusion to Al's wine cellars which, judging by all sorts of merry jokes the two engage in on this album, have been strongly tampered with) — an all-acoustic live album that repeats the experience of Rhymes In Rooms, but to even better effect.
First and foremost, because, as fine as Peter White was on guitar, Nachmanoff is an even stronger player. If you are afraid of or usually bored with «unplugged»-type concerts, Uncorked may change your attitude — Dave can shift from languid and subtle to loud and brutal in the wink of an eye, and his technique seems sometimes to be specifically geared towards proving that there really are no things you can do with an electric guitar that cannot be reproduced, or at least efficiently substituted on an acoustic. for instance, as they launch into 'News From Spain', Al remarks that "Dave has the unenviable task of trying to cover Rick Wakeman's piano solos on the guitar", but actually, Dave rises to the challenge, and even if it is not really possible to completely reinstate the turbulent sea storm atmosphere that Stewart, Wakeman, and others created on the original, they still come very, very close — with nothing but one acoustic rhythm guitar and one acoustic lead. And it's not merely «impressive» — it's overwhelming if you play it loud enough.
Second, the set list is anything but trivial; since the album is obviously geared towards a small group of hardcore fans — most of the outside world already has trouble remembering who wrote 'Year Of The Cat', let alone anything else — the track selection firmly excludes all of Al's «biggies», with the arguable exception of (a much shortened version of) 'Old Admirals', and is almost completely unpredictable; and yet, most of the songs are so pretty that no neophyte, accidentally discovering Stewart through this concert, would ever want to think of the man as a «one-hit wonder» or «singles artist».
Personal favorites include 'Bedsitter Images', bringing us all the way back into 1967, with Nachmanoff perfectly nailing that admirable piano / strings ascending melody; 'Life In Dark Water', stripped down and consequently restored to the status of a melancholic Al Stewart ballad from that of an ice cold Alan Parsons prog-pop epic; the already mentioned 'News From Spain' (Al doing a number from Orange? Unbelievable!); and the happiness of 'Princess Olivia', with its 'Ode To Joy' quote at the beginning unforgotten.
But really, it's all good; even the two songs from Last Days Of The Century, which, come to think of it, really needed this sort of re-recording to redeem them from the production excesses of Al's worst period. And, despite the obligatory humbleness of it all, Uncorked may, all the same, be the most dynamic live album in Al's career, if only because it is so transparently clear that these two guys are simply going for the fun of it, not out of some troublesome «rock star obligation» to the fans and managers, or out of financial reasons. Add to this that the clarity and youthfulness of Al's voice in 'Bedsitter Images' makes it sound like it could have well been recorded in 1967, and Uncorked completes its transformation from a cute late-period curio from a folk rock veteran into a near-must-have recording not just for grizzled Al Stewart fans, but for everyone who appreciates clever songwriting, pretty singing, and masterful guitar playing as such. Thus — yet another thumbs up for the running man. The only bad news is that there is no accompanying DVD release.
Check "Uncorked" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Uncorked" (MP3) on Amazon