Folk-pop singer-songwriter Al Stewart will never forget his first concert in America, which happened to be in Boston. “It was 1974 and I was opening for Helen Reddy,” he recalled in a recent phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. “At the time, literally no one in America had ever heard of me, but I’d had some success in the UK with my album ‘Past Present and Future,’ which of course has historical songs. I was playing theaters and things in England and it was going pretty well and I thought ‘Well, I’ll just do the same thing but for Helen Reddy’s audience.’ They were absolutely not ready for an eight-minute song about the invasion of Russia — let alone a 10-minute song about the prophecies of Nostradamus. They were just staring at me in total silence. I mean, I think they hated it. It was a disaster … but when I came back [to Boston], I opened for Hall and Oates and that went a lot better.” And things continued to get better for the musician, now 76, who topped the music charts with hits including “Year of the Cat” (1976) and “Time Passages” (1978). Stewart, who is known for his melodic and cerebral songs that are often based on historical events and replete with literary references, will be back in New England on April 22 performing with his band, The Empty Pockets, at the Center for the Arts in Natick. The Scottish-born musician, who was raised in England, said he is looking forward to performing here — and is confident he won’t be met by blank stares from the audience when he delves into his history-rich catalog of songs — even the lengthier ones. We caught up with the father of two adult daughters, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Jill, a nurse, to talk about all things travel.
Favorite vacation destination? Home in LA. Because I travel so much touring for a living. I play 70 or 80 shows a year [except for during COVID] and there’s a lot of traveling involved doing gigs — and not just in America, but around the world. I’m probably the wrong person to talk about vacations because I really don’t like them.
Favorite food or drink while vacationing? Kir royale (French champagne cocktail) at the Ritz in Paris. I just have a habit of wherever I go, having a kir royale. I don’t drink them normally, but when on holiday, it seems to call for a pink champagne cocktail, so I’ve drunk them all over the world and the best one I’ve ever had is at the Ritz on the Place Vendome in Paris — maybe because the sense of history there is overwhelming. Everybody has stayed in that hotel. Of course, it’s the last place Princess Diana stayed, but before that, during the war, Ernest Hemingway hung out there a lot and Marlene Dietrich and Robert Capa, who took the photos of the Normandy landing. It was actually Hermann Goering’s [leader of the Luftwaffe and Hitler’s right-hand man] headquarters for a while. Marcel Proust used to live there, too.
Where would you like to travel to but haven’t? I would like to do a river cruise in France.
One item you can’t leave home without when traveling? My back rest.
Aisle or window? Aisle for the simple reason that it makes it easier to go to the bathroom. You don’t have to stumble over the person sitting next to you. But I’m perfectly happy to sit in the window seat.
Favorite childhood travel memory? Any time leaving school. There are people who just shouldn’t go to school for formal education and most artists I think have terrible times at school because it’s there to instill … things you’ll never need again in your lifetime [like] algebra. It’s there to give you a sense of discipline and of course as an artist, that’s the last thing you want. Whenever they would let me out of the boarding school — and I was there for months at a time — I’d get on the train to go home at the end of term and breathe a sigh of relief.
Guilty pleasure when traveling? Room service. [I like to] start the day with tea.
Best travel tip? Take lots of shirts. When you’re on tour, you do a show and move to the next town — and doing laundry is actually quite complicated. Traveling around, the one thing that you constantly need are clean shirts. When we’re planning a tour, one of the things I do is see what the days off are and look to see if there’s laundry because I have to plan ahead, you know.