“Just Magical! Al Stewart and The Empty Pockets LIVE! at The Vogel

Spotlight Central
Spotlight Central

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By Spotlight Central. Photo by Love Imagery

Time passages: Inside the Count Basie Center for the Arts Vogel performance space in Red Bank, NJ this Tuesday, May 7, 2024 evening, music lovers ready themselves for a concert by Al Stewart and The Empty Pockets band. Al Stewart is a Scottish singer/songwriter who rose to fame in the ’60s and ’70s by developing a brand of folk rock featuring characters and events from history. The Empty Pockets is a Y2K-era rock band from Chicago which has backed up artists including Richie Furay of Buffalo Springfield and Poco at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and appeared on PBS’s Soundstage with Kenny Loggins.

The crowd cheers as The Empty Pockets — Josh Solomon on guitar, Erika Brett on keyboards, Nate Bellon on bass, and Adam Balasco on drums — take the stage.

Opening with “Gotta Find the Moon,” Erika Brett’s warm alto harmonizes perfectly with Solomon’s resonant voice on this breezy country rocker which is deftly accompanied by Nate Bellon’s solid bass playing and Adam Belasco’s tight drumming.

Brett’s vocal shines as she sings with power and emotion on the minor key tune, “Wolfpack.”

Solomon greets the crowd announcing, “We are The Empty Pockets from Chicago, Illinois, and we’re here to back up our ‘Uncle Alistair.’ Let’s hear it for Al Stewart!”

The crowd cheers, and saxophonist Elliot Scozzaro joins the ensemble on stage as they perform “Privatize the Profits,” an upbeat rocker which features a sax solo by Scozzaro, a keyboard solo by Brett, and a guitar solo by Solomon.

Scozzaro is also featured on “Mrs. Sacramento,” a jazzy instrumental number where Scozzaro and Solomon play off each other on alto and guitar. Then, Brett sings with soul and feeling on the Empty Pockets’ cover version of The Beatles’ “Oh! Darling” which features Solomon’s twangy electric guitar punctuating the song’s upbeat arrangement.

After Solomon reveals that the Pockets recorded their most recent album at London’s Abbey Road Studios, Brett sings, “I’ll be all right/With you/Maybe tonight/Will do,” on the catchy two-step rocker, “Make it Through.”

The Empty Pockets wrap up their set with “Outside Spectrum” where Brett and Solomon harmonize, “Things are starting to change/The outside spectrum will find a new range,” before Solomon and bassist Nate Bellon rock out together to enthusiastic cheers and applause.

Following intermission, the crowd whistles and cheers as Solomon announces, “Welcome to the stage, Al Stewart!” Opening with the apropos folk-rocker, “You Should Have Listened to Al,” Stewart sings in his unmistakable voice, “I guess I was doing all right up until now/I’m beginning to think you should have listened to Al,” while deftly supported by The Empty Pockets musicians.

Stewart, 78, greets the audience joking, “We’re going to begin with a couple of songs I wrote in 1922,” prior to adding, “I actually forgot I wrote some of these songs, but I did — so I shall play them.” Here, he and The Empty Pockets launch into the story song, “In Brooklyn” where Stewart croons, “It’s 80 degrees/And I’m down on my knees/In Brooklyn.”

After revealing, “That’s an interesting song to me,” Stewart tells the crowd about the time he met his idol, songwriter Leonard Cohen, who commented on the lyrics of “In Brooklyn” suggesting, “Mmm…‘Down on my knees in Brooklyn?’ I like that!”

Stewart announces, “We’ll do a song about the French Revolution,” as he and The Pockets launch into “The Palace of Versailles,” where Scozzaro adds the haunting sound of a flute and Solomon plays a tremolo guitar part.

The crowd applauds, and Stewart invites the audience to continue to clap for all of tonight’s soloists, acknowledging, “Musicians love it when you clap for solos.” Erika Brett is featured playing the keyboard intro to Stewart’s 1978 Top 10 hit, “Time Passages,” where music lovers bop their heads in time to the music as Stewart sings in his clear, refined voice, “Time passages/Years go falling in the fading light/Time passages/Buy me a ticket on the last train home tonight.”

Solomon impresses the audience playing a flamenco-style acoustic guitar part which contrasts nicely with Stewart’s smooth vocal on the powerful and rhythmic “On the Border.” Then, Stewart talks about taking guitar lessons as a youngster from his neighbor, Robert Fripp, who later went on to achieve success with King Crimson. Recalling, “He taught me jazz chords,” Stewart jokes, “In honor of Fripp, we’ll do this jazzy tune we know which isn’t very jazzy.” Here, he and The Pockets sail into “Midas Shadow,” an easy rocker which features Solomon playing, first, a keyboard solo and, then, a guitar solo while solidly backed by the band.

The crowd avidly applauds, and Stewart announces, “We’ll do a seduction song for you now,” as he and the ensemble slip into “Broadway Hotel” where Stewart’s lead vocal perfectly tells the story on this 6/8 folk-rocker which also features a jazzy electric guitar/flute duel.

Explaining, “This next song is about gaining and losing friends,” on the a cappella introduction to “Modern Times” Stewart croons, “Hello, old friends/What a strange coincidence to find you,” before the tune morphs into a rocker and Solomon adds a smoking electric guitar solo while Stewart approvingly looks on.

After telling concertgoers about his love for English folk singers of the ’60s and ’70s, Stewart introduces Erika Brett as the lead vocalist on the rhythmic story song, “Almost Lucy.” Then, Stewart and Co. follow up with the folk-rocker, “One Stage Before,” where Stewart sings, “It seems to me as though I’ve been upon this stage before/And juggled away the night for the same old crowd.”

Stewart concludes his set with his 1977 signature song, “Year of the Cat,” where Scozzaro plays a flute interlude, Solomon contributes a fiery electric guitar solo, Scozzaro follows up with an alto sax solo, and Solomon switches over to play a keyboard solo prior to switching back to electric guitar. Before the song is over, the instrumentalists jam on an extended coda which has the crowd responding with a standing ovation.

Stewart and Co. leave the stage, but soon return for a encore of “Like William McKinley,” a tune in waltz time which has Stewart vocalizing in his carefree style, “I’ll sit on my porch like William McKinley/And I’ll let the world come to me,” as the band accompanies him with a kaleidoscope of sound before the number concludes to cheers, applause, and an enthusiastic standing ovation.

As concertgoers exit the Vogel performance space, several stop to chat with members of The Empty Pockets who are in the lobby meeting and greeting fans. When asked to share his thoughts on tonight’s Jersey performance, guitarist Josh Solomon declares, “We love playing New Jersey! Obviously, when you get to play near Bruce Springsteen’s home and in the home town of Count Basie, you’re winning!”

Continuing, “I think the tour right now with Al is in a really strong spot — we played songs from 1969 all the way through his later catalog, and the band is really gelling after all these years,” Josh concludes by confessing, “I’m 38 years old and and Al is 78, and if I’m touring in 40 years like Al, I’m gonna be really, really happy!”

In the lobby, several music lovers also share their thoughts on tonight’s performance. Exclaims Robert from Whiting, “Al Stewart was wonderful! His music is superb, he’s got personality, he hits all the notes, and at 78 years old, he’s incredible!” Rick from South Orange agrees, acknowledging, “This was my first time seeing Al Stewart live. He played well, he’s a good storyteller, and The Empty Pockets were really good, too — I had a really nice time.”

Asserts Al from Marlboro, “Al Stewart was a lot of fun! I saw him a few months ago with Don McLean and thought if he ever did a stand-alone concert I’d catch him again because he’s funny, he has great stories, and his music is so great to listen to. Plus, The Empty Pockets are great, too — I love discovering new music, and I really enjoyed their sound.”

Joel from Toms River insists, “Al Stewart was really good tonight! He sounds just as good as he did 50 years ago, and his band is really good, too — they’re all so talented.” Vicky from Toms River concurs, explaining, “Al was great — he’s talented, charming, and a great storyteller — and The Empty Pockets brought his music to a whole new level.”

Lastly, Jason from Garwood reveals, “I’ve been following Al Stewart and his music for awhile. It’s 2024, but hearing him now, you’d think it was 1974; he still sounds the same,” before concluding, “They say age is nothing but a number, but to hear Al perform tonight in his upper 70s with The Empty Pockets was just magical!”

To learn more about Al Stewart, please go to alstewart.com. For more on The Empty Pockets, please click on theemptypockets.com. For information on great upcoming shows at The Vogel — including Don Was and the Pan Detroit Ensemble on May 28, Stanley Clarke on June 29, and JD Souther on September 11 — please go to thebasie.org.

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