If there’s one thing you can say about Rod Stewart, it’s that he loves being Rod Stewart.
This includes his voice, still remarkably soulful and powerful after five decades; his charisma, which was barely contained by Madison Square Garden Monday night (December 9); his song catalog, packed with hits from the ’70s, ’80s and even the ’90s, which still seems to be a work in progress. Monday’s set included “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” from last year’s Merry Christmas Baby and “Can’t Stop Me Now” and “Brighton Beach” from this year’s Time. Oh, and the fact that he’s still surrounding himself by beautiful girls, including two-thirds of his horn section, three backing singers, a violinist and even a harp player.
Stewart’s biggest skill — other than singing — is playing the audience. From the minute he bounded onstage to his cover of the Isley Brothers’ “This Old Heart Of Mine” to the last notes of “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” he was as much a virtuoso at hamming it up as support act Steve Winwood is on keyboards and guitar.
Easily sliding between his ’70s classics (“You Wear It Well,” “Stay With Me,” “Tonight’s The Night”) and what some might refer to as his kitschier later material (“Rhythm Of My Heart,” “Some Guys Have All The Luck”) Stewart is comfortable singing any of his hits, regardless of how the rock intelligentsia has graded them. Which makes sense: after all, to the chagrin of many of his purist fans (not to mention his long-suffering bandmates in the Faces), he’s been doing a lot of Vegas shows lately (check him out at Caesar’s Palace in May of 2014!).
And really, holding on to the Rod Stewart of the early ’70s in 2013 would be as churlish as expecting Michael Jackson to be the same kid from the Jackson 5, if he had lived to perform his “This Is It” concerts. You can sing the old songs, but you can’t deny the decades that have passed. And hey, do you want to wear the clothes you wore 40 years ago?
With his costume changes, backing singers, his constant addressing the crowd as “Ladies and gentlemen,” and the flashy stage, the Vegas influence was undeniable, and you either went with it, or you didn’t. This wasn’t “An Intimate Evening With Rod Stewart.” And yet, when he sang the Etta James classic “I’d Rather Go Blind” from his 1972 classic Never A Dull Moment and the stage went dark and the spotlight focused only on Rod, it was a reminder of how powerful he can be. Similarly, “Stay With Me” was one of the evening’s more straight ahead numbers (he introduced it by noting it was the Faces’ only U.S. hit: “God bless the Faces!”); it surely had some old-school fans eagerly anticipating the Faces reunion that Rod says is “earmarked” for 2015.
During one break between songs, Stewart showed a vintage video from the early ’60s of him singing on stage with Steve Winwood playing guitar behind him. The two had similar beginnings: both started out in the ’60s someone else’s band (Stewart with the Jeff Beck Group, Winwood with the Spencer Davis Group). They would both later start their own bands (the Faces, Traffic) and go on to become solo superstars, with hits stretching well into the ’80s. Winwood’s set, which preceded Stewart’s (it feels rude to say he “opened”), had a lot in common with Stewart’s: he revisited material from his former bands (“Gimme Some Lovin’,” “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Back Home”), touched on ’80s hits (“Higher Love”) and included a bit of more recent material (“Dirty City”).
On the other hand, it was a radically different performance. Where Stewart had a curtain around the stage that was dramatically raised to herald his performance, Winwood simply walked up to his Hammond organ while the house lights were on and started playing. Stewart had wardrobe changes throughout the night, including a silver blazer and slacks; Winwood remained in his comfy looking green flannel and jeans. While Stewart’s band were tightly rehearsed, as is appropriate for a Vegas act, Winwood’s band was much more improvisational; they have more in common with the Allman Brothers Band or Santana than Stewart’s combo. And where Stewart’s performances are all about his persona, Winwood seems more comfortable behind his keyboards or guitar. Still, both men are in an enviable position. They’re guys in their ’60s who have been recording and touring for over four decades, and still look and sound great. And judging by the audience reaction (and the fact that the bill either sold out Madison Square Garden, or came close), they still can expect to perform for years to come.