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Al Stewart, Dave Nachmanoff, Samantha Smith, City Winery, NYC, February 27, 2011
February 27, 2011

01-Welcome to City Winery
02-The Watering Can Song (SS)
03-Running Back to Folded Arms (SS)
04-Evergreen (SS)
05-Hallelujah (SS, DN)
06-La Vie En Rose (SS, DN)
07-Miracle (SS, DN)
08-Go, Go Go (SS, DN)
09-Midnight Sea (DN)
10-Thing of Beauty (DN)
11-The Loyalist (DN)
12-House of Clocks (AS, DN)
13-Lord Grenville (AS, DN)
14-Antarctica (AS, DN)
15-Mr. Lear (AS, DN)
16-On The Border (AS, DN)
17-Night Train to Munich (AS, DN)
18-Clifton in the Rain (AS, DN)
19-Gina in the Kings Road (AS, DN)
20-Life in Dark Water (AS, DN)
21-Road to Moscow (AS, DN)
22-Sheila Won't Be Coming Home (AS, DN)
23-You Should Have Listened to Al (AS, DN, SS)
24-Midas Shadow (AS, DN)
25-Year of the Cat (AS, DN)
26-Carol (AS, DN)

It's probably an exaggeration to say that without Al Stewart there'd be no Decemberists or British Sea Power, and I don't really believe in the choke point theory of the advancement of arts and ideas, but it is certainly fair to say that for many years the idea that songs could be about history and politics was pretty much an Al Stewart squat. Now that the lights are on and some others have moved in it's good for everybody, but in many ways Al remains the superintendent.

I go see Al Stewart every time he's in town, and for the last couple of years he's performed in an undeniably successful and apparently happy menage a deux with Dave Nachmanoff, himself a prodigously talented acoustic guitarist and songwriter. Dave usually plays a solo opening set then backs up Al, playing all the fiddly parts with serpentine skill and adding noodle doodle decorations over jackrabbit steel mill rhythm as appropriate. Oh, and he acts as Al's comic foil, all part of the very good bargain.

But this show . . . Hello! What's this, then? That's not Dave coming out to open, and no mistake about it. Instead it's a stunning, barely 18 yr old Orange County ingenue, taller than Dave, with blond locks cut to bangs and a smile that sort of gave me that strobe light-epilepsy thing (go ahead, look her up on Google images, put in Vassar, then come back, I'll wait.) As I think I've mentioned before, I've been reading the Keith Richards bio and as a result my mind sort of runs down to rockaroll babylon, I just can't stop it. And this is a rich set of pieces. Many possibilities. First up, if you were going to mount a stage production of Lolita for the St. Vincent Hospital Community Outreach Players ("Now you can tear a building down . . ."), well, you've got your principal casting done. Ehh . . . but it doesn't quite hit the mark: Smith would certainly dazzle in the title role, but Al Stewart's Humbert just punts affectless monomania, and delightful little Judeo-Gaelic leprechaun Dave Nachmanoff's Clare Quilty lacks menace. So next they're all at DungeonCon, on stage, taking a cosplay prize for Best Party of Three: High Elf Priestess, Laughing Gnome Bard and Little Mischevious Gremlin Thing (Oh yeah? I'll bet you $500 there is too such a prize.) And then Woody Allen stands up in the audience and announces that each generation deserves it's own "Manhattan" and . . . Wuhhh, I guess I slipped off there for a minute. But back in real life, Al actually did tip his hat to Lewis Carroll in his intro to "Mr. Lear," and lets just say it was a reference with particular immediacy.

Anyway, Samantha Smith's explanation for this unlikely menage a deux plus une is that they all met somehow in CA and she opened for them out in San Juan De Capistrano. Now she's at Vassar, the boys are playing NYC, and Al's like "Dave, I have an idea . . .", like that. What it cost Dave is any mention of his name on the bill (I wasn't even sure he was going to be at this show till I saw him) and two thirds of his opening set (he backs up Sam on her last few songs then plays a very concise three song set of his own). Their actual interaction onstage was closer to stepbrother/stepsister ("Yes, yes, I really like him/her! I told you, I told you, I told you I do!") with its icing of extravagant praise on a dense fruitcake of strained politeness ("Dave is awesome!! And wonderful! He really is." paired with "I get to say I played with Sam Smith at her NYC debut! So good for me.")

Was it a good idea, this departure from the tried and true? Well, she is quite an ornament, at an event that has typically not much been known for visual appeal. And she actually sings and plays beautifully. clear highs, and nice tone, but not much to distinguish herself from, say, the double l gals (Sara and Colby). Her greater strength, I think, is her limber, nimble, petit point acoustic guitar style with its strong S&G rhythmic sense. And she's a good songwriter. Her originals were catchy and well composed, enjoyable on the first listen. Her stage persona needs to be developed: while her rap to the audience never quite dipped into the utterly inane, there was the occasional near miss, and she's one of the legion of young women with a mild case of PGVAS (Pretty Girl Vocal Affectation Syndrome; look for the telethon) with its attendant precious overarticulation and archly banal witticisms. But, hey, somebody remind me: this girl is ONLY 18 YEARS OLD! It's actually a little depressing to realize how little chance that someone as talented as her has at any real success as a performer. But she's made my list: I will go see her from now on whenever she's in town, and I want all of you to do the same. If we all band together, maybe we can still save her from a career as a Pfizer drug rep.

So, Al and Dave? Strong performance as usual, with perhaps a tad more variety in the set list than I've seen in the last few shows ("Clifton", "YSHLtA"). Al Stewart's catalog is huge, and I really wish they'd range over it even more widely. The only must-plays are "On the Border" and "Year of the Cat", since Al professes not to like "Time Passages" and usually doesn't play it. Except for those two, they really ought to play totally different songs every night. This time it actually seemed like some of the air was starting to come out of "YotC" and I think it might be interesting if they just retired it for a while, maybe resurrect "TP". But that's not the kind of thinking that pays the bills, I guess.

And the City Winery? It's The Mark to B. B. King's Milford Plaza, and the best cabaret experience in town. And I don't even particularly like wine.

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