Al Stewart – 1976

You all know or have heard Year of the Cat right? It was nearly four decades ago that this single became neo-folk steam train that could. Little things about its creation distilled in a wonderfully universal way nearly all the transformation, and rungs that neo-folk had taken by then. You hear it in Al’s nasal Bert Janschian-like vocal phrasing, in Tim Renwick’s symphonic neo-folk arrangement, and in the now famous lyrics written by Mr. Stewart that invoke, but don’t quite evoke,  his then life-long musical trademark of using historical figures as cyphers for his own sentiments. This was his first hit song without a figure to guide it…

“Year of the Cat” single.

Now so ubiquitous on golden oldies radio stations, and classic rock frequencies, one forgets how this song actually never was a #1 hit for Al Stewart (an honor that belongs to one of soft-rock’s forgotten canonical songs: “Time Passages” released in 1978). Songs like the flip side of the single “Broadway Hotel“, “On the Border” (with its Roy Harper-esque vibrancy), and “Midas Shadow” predicting an English sophisticated-pop sound more than a few years away or other more memorable, shorter album tracks of shoulda been hits weren’t…and this 6-minute song was. How odd. The song itself though, just cements this weird little bit of musical coolness going on at the moment.

In America, Renaissance was working with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to lay down one of the greatest live albums ever at Carnegie Hall, 1976’s Live at Carnegie Hall, the crown jewel of all symphonic rock and itself a unique opus with all the best tracks from their golden period all the way down to Scheherazade and Other Stories reimagined with full string accompaniments. Releasing it to massive sales success in the US and elsewhere.

Then Canadian-Quebecois, Kate and Anna McGarrigle off creating a minor masterpiece of east meets west neo-folk, in France, unwittingly those sisters become part of the same movement that includes French folk-rock bands like Malicorne. Joining forces with Joe Boyd, who produced Nick Drake and the Incredible String Band, they round up a murderer’s row of musicians like Lowell George and other members from Little Feat, Tony Levin, Steve Gadd and more to record a potpourri of astounding tracks popular in France and England. Country, French Chanson, Soho Pop, Cabaret, West Coast, and Gaelic folk-rock all get swept together under their sisterly broom.

Malicorne itself, influenced highly by artists like Fairport Convention and Alan Stivell to dig deep into their own roots for their own kind of neo-folk music in albums like Almanach. French folk-rock, who knew?

Then Wilko Johnson from Dr. Feelgood takes everything forward, then back, and then forward again in France to bring it all back home by germinating everyone with one of the cool new seeds of modern English folk music, their pub rock cum punk music dejour 1976’s live album Stupidity

What a time to be alive, no? If, you’re part of this interesting musical nexus it seems the whole sonic world is opening for you. One can see how there’s new territory to cover and people willing to stick their neck out to present a new tradition. How that goes, we will soon see part of, in this neo-folk sojourn…

Listen to Year of the Cat the album at Spotify.