R&R magazine’s Andy Barker caught up with musician Dave Stewart as he prepares to take to the stage in the city.
ROLL UP! Roll up! Sunderland rock star Dave Stewart is preparing to bring his ‘circus’ of international musicians to the Empire Theatre for an unforgettable show.
Dave chose Sunderland Empire Theatre as a special place to launch his new album The Ringmaster General, as part of a mini UK tour which kicks off in the city on September 3.
He is bringing with him an enviable gang of international performers including Michael Jackson’s last guitarist Orianthi, who is currently touring with Alice Cooper, and saxophonist Candy Dulfer who Dave recorded the hit soundtrack single Lily Was Here back in 1989.
It will be an emotional visit to his home, coming two years after rushing back to see his father before he passed away following a fall. Amazingly it will be Dave’s first ‘proper’ gig on home turf and the first time he’ll walk through the doors of the Empire since watching rock band Free perform there when Alright Now was a hit first time round.
The new album launch in Sunderland continues a Nashville odyssey for Dave Stewart who has recorded an incredible five albums in the last two years either solo or collaboratively.
His time in Nashville came out of the blue. Dave recalls: “It all happened by accident. I was stuck in London when the flights were cancelled after the Icelandic volcano. The only flight I could get out of the UK was to Nashville. While I was there I went exploring and ended up in the studio and met some great people and performers.”
Despite recording and performing with the like of Mick Jagger, Bono, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks, Bob Dylan, Bryan Ferry and even Nelson Mandela, Dave had never explored the musical hotspot of Nashville.
“Over the years I’d explored the likes of Memphis, Detriot, Mississippi and Chicago but managed to bypass the home of country music. I suppose back in the 80s, country music was something I would not have been drawn to but I have fallen in love with Nashville and it seems to have fallen in love with me.
“I didn’t have any contacts in Nashville. I didn’t really know anyone but booked into Blackbird Studios there and things started to happen and people stopped by which I am really open to – you get to discover new things that way. I gave myself the name of Ringmaster General as the studio became a bit of a circus then the top hat came in and we had an image for the album.
“I started to think about where I should play. Then it came to me – why not start at the Empire in Sunderland where it all began. I didn’t even know if they put gigs on anymore. I checked out the website and saw they did so asked my agency to see if they could get me a gig there.
“I saw a picture of the theatre on the web and thought wow – it looks great – I love the old places with red velvet seats like somewhere you’d see in Paris.
“I can’t wait to bring my circus into town. Everyone in the band is a phenomenal player and I have a back catalogue of great tunes to draw from plus some new songs I am really excited about. I am now at the point of just having great fun.”
It’s been a long journey since those early days busking in pubs and clubs in Sunderland before securing a record deal in 1971 as part of the folk-rock band Longdancer, who released two albums.
The band broke up and Dave found himself living in London getting by gigging and selling reggae music on a market stall. In the mid-70s he started working with Sunderland songwriter Pete Coombes and was soon introduced to Annie Lennox. They formed a band which became The Tourists going on to record three albums scoring a couple of top ten hits with So Good to Be Back Home and I Only Want To Be With You along the way.
Pete Coombes took ill on a tour of Australia and on top of some band disharmony they split. Dave and Annie kept their links with record company RCA and went on to release the avant-garde album In The Garden as a duo under the new name The Eurythmics.
Remembering the early days Dave said: “Annie and I were massive fans of all the punk bands. We used to live above a record shop in London that sold nothing but punk and reggae while in the basement bands like The Adverts and The Vibrators use to rehearse. We loved the Sex Pistols and The Clash too but musically and creatively we didn’t really feel part of it.
“When the punk movement collapsed, new wave and then the new romantic thing came along and still we just didn’t feel part of a scene. We decided to stay away from everything for a while and follow our own instincts by effectively cutting ourselves off from the outside world.
“The two of us became one in a way and created a strange sound which became the underground album In The Garden which we recorded with avant-garde record producer Conny Plank who had worked with Kraftwerk.
“The record company were not impressed and although the record came out it didn’t sell. The next album we did on our own. We had already bought the suits which became our image at the time and walked in to the local bank to get a bank loan. We managed to convince them we were sane people and we got £5,000 which we spent on a Teac recorder, a space echo machine, a new synth and a mixing desk. We then set about recording what became the Sweet Dreams album.
“The record company didn’t give us any money – we had to get the money and essentially do it ourselves. I remember playing it to the record company and they just didn’t get it.
“They put out three singles which got nowhere. Then finally Sweet Dreams which was ignored until a radio station in Ohio in the states got hold of it and when it was played the phones went crazy. At the time the DJs all talked together and rang up the label in America and said you have to put this single out. They didn’t even know who we were.
“It finally got back to London that it was spreading through the commercial radio station network and the rest is history. By the time we got over there it was number one. MTV had also just started and when we came out with the video of Sweet Dreams – all based on Orwell style imagery – America went crazy for it.”
The Eurythmics went on to be one of the biggest bands of the 1980s selling millions of records before going their separate ways in 1990 after a heavy schedule of recording and touring. They reunited for the Peace tour and album in 1999 before returning to their solo careers.
Now the former Bede and Barnes Junior School pupil is making the trip back to Sunderland which will also be a poignant one as Dave and his brother John plan to mark the anniversary of their father’s death with a private spreading of the ashes ceremony in the city during his visit.
Then back to work and who knows, maybe another five albums in the coming two years for the father of four.
Dave mused: “It’s not exactly work is it really – digging the glass out of the old furnace at the old Pyrex works – now that’s work.”
Creative rebirth for Sunderland
Sunderland businessman Paul Callaghan is not the only mover and shaker predicting a creative rebirth for the city.
Dave said: “There have been big changes like becoming a city and the university growing and all that stuff, but I think there is a huge change going to happen over the next 10 years and it will have a lot to do with the creativity and the mindset of the people who are now running businesses and working in Sunderland.
“I think they will shape a new conception of Sunderland – it will become one of the great creative hubs – not just in music but in terms of places to go and things to do and see.”
Dave and his band are set to appear at Sunderland Empire Theatre on September 3. For tickets click here