❉ This is the definitive overview of the peak of Stewart’s commercial period, writes James R Turner.
Coming to prominence in the British folk scene in the late 1960s, having performed at the first Glastonbury festival, flat shared with Paul Simon and hosting at the legendary Les Cousins folk club in London in the ‘60s, 1980’s 24 Carrots, the follow up 1978’s successful Time Passages, saw Stewart continue the shift away from folk music started on 1976’s Year of the Cat and with a highly polished sound, and the first album recorded with backing band Shot in the Dark was as far removed from 1967’s Bedsitter Images as was possible to be.
This remastering and reissuing from Esoteric expands the album into a comprehensive three-disc overview of this period of Stewart’s career, including the original album (with the two single edits) a second disc of album demos and a previously unreleased concert from Hammersmith Odeon, from 10 December 1980.
Complete with lavish sleeve notes, and a replica of the poster used to promote the Hammersmith Odeon gigs, this continues Esoteric’s remastering series of Al’s classic albums, in definitive edition formats.
Utilising Peter White’s band Shot in the Dark as collaborators throughout the album and live shows adds a coherence to the album, and the production by Stewart and Chris Desmond is sublime throughout.
At this stage in Al’s career following the success of Year of the Cat and Time Passages, he was at the peak of what he would later refer to as his commercial period and continued his theme of writing songs with a historical basis, and his knack for a radio friendly melody and his smooth vocals ensured this album is incredibly accessible.
Just because an album is accessible, doesn’t make it a bad album, and this is no exception to that rule, the songwriting on here (as you’d expect) is superb, and single Running Man (here in both album & single form, demo and live recording) is another of Al’s catchy well written songs, this time inspired by Nazi war criminals escaping to South America, and as with many of Al’s best songs the lyrics are just as important of the music.
There are not many songwriters out there who able to build an entire universe that tells you a story within the confines of a 4-minute rock song, however this is one of Al’s skills, and it’s used to great effect here on Running Man and on Merlin’s Time, the condensation of a book about a Scottish poet called Merlin (leant to Al by Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band) into three minutes.
Also included is the US top 30 hit Midnight Rocks, and the wonderful Murmansk Run-Ellis Island, as well as great tunes like Paint by Numbers (also here as a single version).
The demo discs include the majority of the album tracks, showcasing how they developed into the album proper and the instrumental versions of Running Man and Merlin’s Time are excellent snapshots as to how they developed over time, whilst Jackdaw and The World goes to Riyadh are tracks that ultimately didn’t make the finished album, but are interesting to hear in their demo form.
The live set is dominated by Al’s bigger hits including some great live versions of Year of the Cat, Time Passages, On the Border, whilst Running Man is a fantastic opener to the gig, and the band Shot in the Dark provide superb musical accompaniment to Al’s tracks, and the set is absolutely note perfect throughout.
This is a fantastic reissue of an album that sometimes get overshadowed by its more illustrious forebears but is worthy of acknowledgement of being a classic within Al’s back catalogue, and it’s great to hear it here it all it’s musical glory and, with songwriting as timeless as this, the album hasn’t aged at all.
An essential purchase for all Al Stewart fans.
❉ Al Stewart: 24 Carrots – 40th Anniversary Edition (Esoteric Recordings QECLEC32726) was released 27 November 2020 by Cherry Red Records, RRP £17.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.
❉ James R. Turner is a music and media journalist. Over the last 25 years he has contributed to the Classic Rock Society magazine, BBC online, Albion Online, The Digital Fix, DPRP, Progarchy, ProgRadar and more. James’ debut book is out in September and he is head of PR for Bad Elephant Music. He lives in North Somerset with his fiancee Charlotte, their Westie Dilys & Ridgeback Freja, three cats and too many CDs, records & Blu-Rays.