This rock n' roll cat has nine lives
by Seth Rogovoy

(ALBANY, N.Y.) – Rod Stewart is one of the most durable, chameleonlike rock ‘n’ roll singers of all time, and both qualities have served him well over the long haul. Just when it seems time to write him off as a has-been or a parody of his former self (or of one of his former selves), he startles you with something new, or something old but reinvented.

This rock ‘n’ roll cat has nine lives, and they were all on display in Stewart’s energetic, well-paced show at the Pepsi Arena on Monday night. The blues-rocker led a scorching version of “Stay With Me” from his stint with the English rock group The Faces. The folk-rocker took original fans on a nostalgic trip with his signature cover of Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe.” The soul balladeer swaggered through his greatest hit, “Tonight’s the Night,” which spent a remarkable eight weeks at number one in 1976, and the disco scamp proved he had plenty of funk left in him with a version of “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?”

Helping Stewart out was a terrific, versatile ensemble of keyboardists, guitarists, percussionists, a trio of female singers, and a woman saxophonist and a woman violinist who added colors and textures to the dynamite arrangements. At 59, Stewart seemed pretty spry, executing knee drops and leg kicks, running around the stage nearly non-stop, and even kicking soccer balls far out into the audience at several key points during the show.

Always the rock ‘n’ roll peacock, Stewart took the stage, which was decked out like an all-white appliance store (even the amplifiers were white), dressed in a fluorescent orange jacket over a bright red shirt. Although the show got off to something of a slow start with lesser material like “Forever Young,” “Young Turks” and “Sailing,” the band kicked into gear with some Motown-style tunes, including “Some Guys Have All the Luck.” He offered a majestic arrangement of the hit he had with Cat Stevens’s “First Cut Is the Deepest,” and added Springsteen-like touches to the anthemic “Downtown Train.”

Stewart made the most of his ensemble, and integrated the musicians and singers into the show, even giving the vocal trio a couple of numbers of their own, including a feisty version of “Proud Mary,” that he used for costume changes. The first half of the show came to a rousing climax with a run through “You Wear It Well,” “Reason to Believe,” “You’re in My Heart” – which includes the unforgettably clunky couplet, “My love for you is immeasurable, my respect for you immense” – and “Stay with Me.”

When Stewart returned for the second half, the stage was transformed into a gaudy, gilt-laced, swing-era ballroom, and the rock band was supplemented by a chamber orchestra for songs from Stewart’s two recent albums of selections from the so-called Great American Songbook, including “As Time Goes By” and “It Had to Be You.” As the albums do, this segment begged the question, why, as in, why would anyone want to hear Stewart sing these songs, and why would Stewart want to sing them?

Stewart wasn’t nearly up to the task of tackling these numbers. Even his own songs suffered greatly from his lack of vocal ballast. His voice still has its signature rasp and personality, but he has lost all dynamic control. But even more problematic is Stewart’s buying into the notion of a discontinuity between George Gershwin and Bob Dylan or Cole Porter and Sam Cooke. The point is, Stewart has always drawn from a Great American Songbook – why buy into this odd notion that they don’t write them like that anymore. (That’s a wholly rhetorical question – for the answer consult the sales figures for Stewart’s two recent albums.)

In any case, Stewart made quick work of the pop tunes, and within half an hour skillfully slid back into his own repertoire, finding common ground between “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “Tonight’s the Night,” before bringing it all back home with “Maggie May.”

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 3, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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