Talk about time passages. It’s only taken a half-century or so for Al Stewart to make it to Israel for a concert.
“If I had been invited before, I would have come. But this is the first time,” said the 77-year-old Scottish-born folk rocker, who will be making his local debut on November 8 at Hangar 11 in Tel Aviv.
Best known for his 1970s hits like the pun in the lead – “Time Passages” – as well as his signature tune, “Year of the Cat,” and popular follow-up “On The Border,” Stewart possesses an engaging, sophisticated sound fueled by his easily identifiable chirpy voice and trademark lush pop production.
That sheen didn’t come naturally, however. Stewart was a folkie-styled singer/songwriter in late 1960s England, part of the incredibly creative period that saw The Beatles, Bob Dylan and all that followed them breaking new ground in popular music. He performed at the inaugural Glastonbury Festival in 1970.
During that time, Stewart released a series of albums, with many songs based on historical themes, that didn’t have much of an impact. Then he met famed producer Alan Parsons, who had worked with The Beatles and Pink Floyd before launching his own mega-successful Alan Parsons Project.
“He told me, ‘Well, the songs are great, but the production is not so hot.’” Stewart recalled.
They ended up going into the studio to record 1975’s Modern Times, which polished Stewart’s tunes into a Beatlesque hum and launched Stewart’s rise in popularity.
“Alan made it sound more commercial,” said Stewart, and the critics agreed. One review called the album “exquisite,” establishing Stewart’s “classic sound of folky narratives and Lennonesque melodies, all wrapped up in a lush, layered production from Alan Parsons.”
That sound was palatable to American radio listeners but still fell on deaf ears in England.
“It didn’t take off in England, but it did in America. That was really surprising to me. I’ve still never had a major hit in England,” added Stewart with a chuckle.
After he released the Parsons-produced follow-up in 1976, Year of the Cat, Stewart flew to the United States for a tour, which ended up lasting seven months as the title song gained popularity and turned into a smash hit.
“It was a slow burn record that went up five or 10 spots on the charts every week. It took three or four months to make the Top 10,” he recalled.
“I was living in a rented flat the record company got for me in Los Angeles, and every time the record went up the charts they bought me another piece of furniture as a gift. One time a table, then a chair. Eventually, they splurged and bought a record player, so I got some albums.
“This went on for something like half a year – we did about 100 shows. And by the end of the tour, I had a furnished apartment, so I thought why would I bother to go home, I might as well stay here.”
He remained in LA and continues to reside there today, using it as a base for his frequent tours. It’s a far cry from the small London apartment he rented in the mid-1960s when he was trying to establish himself on the local folk scene. Among the flatmates who drifted in was a young Paul Simon, who had flown to England after his career in a duo with Art Garfunkel seemed to be going nowhere.
“HE ENDED up being quite an influence on my songwriting or at least how to write a song. ‘Oh, that’s how you do it.’ I got to listen to him write songs in the other room, and then he would come out and play them to me. So I think I might have been the first person to ever hear ‘Homeward Bound’.”
“Then one day he came out and played ‘Richard Cory’, which I thought was one of the best songs I ever heard.”
Another artist Stewart chummed around with in the 1960s was a pre-John Lennon Yoko Ono.
“She used to come around to my flat. I would tune my guitar to modal D and play Indian raga and she would kind of wail over the top of it. We recorded about six hours of music, then she met John and didn’t come around anymore. I ended up erasing those tapes. I guess I should have kept them,” he said.
One Stewart-Ono project that did see the light of day was a film called #4, or more popularly Bottoms.
“It’s an art film nobody saw featuring 360 naked bottoms. For some unknown reason, I got dragged into being a co-producer,” he said. “I think my name still appears on the credits.”
Stewart is happier talking about his body of work over the decades and his shows, which he takes particular pride in. He was talking to the Post from Northampton, England, in the middle of a 16-show UK tour.
“I do it because it’s what I do. I get a paper with an itinerary and flights and do whatever is written there. I’ve been doing it for so long, it’s just ingrained in me,” he said. “Anyway, it’s too late to take up cricket.”
For the last seven years, Stewart’s connected with a young, rootsy Chicago-based band called The Empty Pockets, who fill the roles of his opening act and backing band. They infuse Stewart’s songs with a spunky enthusiasm bordering on rock and roll.
“I think it works very well, they’re really good. More people should pay attention to them,” said Stewart of the band, which has also backed up Gary Wright of “Dream Weaver” fame and Bad Company’s Simon Kirke.
Empty Pockets’ co-vocalist and keyboardist Erika Brett told the Post in a Twitter exchange that she first came to Israel in 2007 on a birthright program, “and I’m bursting to show the boys around. So many amazing places to visit and delicious things to eat.”
“Traveling the world while playing with Al has completely changed our lives. He is incredibly smart and has taught us about so many things, including history, songwriting, music and wine,” she added.
Two nights following their show with Stewart, Empty Pockets will be appearing on November 10 at the Karmiel Conservatory in a show sponsored by the Karmiel Folk Club.
The Stewart show has been on the burner for years but for a variety of reasons, including the COVID pandemic, it kept being put on hold.
“I have been working in bringing him here for 12 years,” said one of the show’s promoters, Hillel Wachs. “Al wasn’t exactly sure it was safe to come to Israel but when Don McLean (who performed in Ra’anana in 2018) told him that he had a great time, he decided to come.”
COVID disrupted the touring schedule of musicians around the globe, including Stewart who put live shows on hold for a couple of years.
“I think we were supposed to do this tour last year but COVID put a stop to that,” said Stewart. “All the musicians I know took two years off because the gigs stopped. But now most of us are back on the road.”
For Stewart in the 1960s and now, time passages are just gaps in between making music.