Small changes make difference in Rod Stewart’s return

We all know people like Rod Stewart. The ones who get by on their good looks and do very well at it, so they seldom rise to their true potential.

At 66, Stewart is a bit too old for some high-school guidance counselor to sit him down and give him a good talking to. And who else would?

Certainly not the decked-out, painted-up cougars who almost buried him at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace when he invited them up to sit with him on the stage steps. And not their men, who can only sit back and smile at the old chick magnet, forced to admit he would be good male company at a soccer game with beer. (Video for "You’re in My Heart (The Final Acclaim)" reveals that Stewart’s "lover" and "best friend" is the Celtic Football Club.)

But occasionally, Stewart seems to listen to his own inner voice. Subtle changes between last November’s Colosseum debut and this week’s return — the first in a two-year commitment — suggest he gave himself the lecture about coasting and how he could do better.

You didn’t see this for a long time in Wednesday’s kickoff show, the first of a batch running through Sept. 11. The order of songs shuffled, and there was more rear-screen video to brighten up the stage. But it still played like the winking, hands-in-pocket victory lap of November.

Nothing really wrong with that, beyond the sound mix occasionally drowning the star’s vocals. Stewart arfed like a dog on "Infatuation," and eased his way through "Tonight’s the Night," pulling on his pink tie and doing a cheeky, self-aware soft shoe.

Evergreen covers of Sam Cooke’s "Having a Party" and "Twistin’ the Night Away" gave generous stage time to his large backing band, stacked with leggy female brass and violin players (perhaps that’s an ode to the late Robert Palmer, who also gets a visual shout-out on the big screen during "Some Guys Have All the Luck," with whom Stewart shared the song).

"Real singing, real playing. That’s what I like!" Stewart would proclaim later. Still, slick and sharp as these players are, they came off a bit like the house band of a late-night talk show, with no collective "sound."

Things changed a bit after an odd drum duet in the middle of "Downtown Train." It turned out to be not a Grateful Dead tribute, but a chance for the star to change into a shiny purple suit. This led to a curtained-down acoustic segment rekindling the "Unplugged … and Seated" album, with songs we didn’t hear in November.

"Broken Arrow" had the right idea, but still seemed a little too inflated by the band. It was the next song, "The Killing of Georgie," that turned out to be the heart of the show. Stewart explained to the crowd it was once controversial for proclaiming, "Georgie Boy was gay, I guess … but needed love like all the rest."

Like most of the night, Stewart’s whiskey-aged rasp was softer than we remember and sometimes muffled by the band. But enough of the song got through to remind us he can be deeper than the more rocking version of Engelbert Humperdinck he often settles for. Just a handful of weightier tunes — "Reason to Believe," "Every Picture Tells a Story" — were enough to ground the show, give it some bottom end, as the bass player might say.

But Stewart had to pull his own bottom end away from those stair steps when the gals got rowdy during "The First Cut is the Deepest." They are the ones he needs to take care of with "Maggie May" and "Do Ya Think I’m Sexy," in practical terms of $250 tickets and 50 shows in two years.

But when he decides to please himself as well, he should know that other people might take notice, too.

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

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