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Review: Rod Stewart, “Live 1976-1998: Tonight’s the Night”

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Rod Stewart - Live BoxAfter more than a decade mining the Great American Songbook, seventies rock, vintage soul and Christmas carols, Rod Stewart returned to original rock material with the 2013 release of Time. And while much of the titular subject had indeed passed since his last album of new songs, Stewart’s distinctive voice and joie de vivre were happily intact. The spirit that has kept Stewart a superstar is fully on display in the new 4-CD box set Tonight’s the Night – Live 1976-1998. Over its four discs and 58 previously unheard live recordings, we hear Stewart the singer coexisting with Stewart the showman, blazing through songs both familiar and rarely performed.

It’s easy to forget just how damn good a singer Stewart is – but there’s ample evidence on this belated companion to the lavish Sessions box set also produced by Andy Zax and Cheryl Pawelski. It doesn’t hurt that he’s surrounded himself over the years with a group of sympathetic musicians, many of whom were long-serving. Guitarists Jim Cregan, Gary Grainger and Billy Peek, bassist Phil Chen, drummer Carmine Appice (most notably of Vanilla Fudge) and keyboardists John Jarvis and later, Kevin Savigar, particularly make an impression here with the performances between 1976 and 1980. Cregan and Savigar also are heard on the shows from 1981 and 1984, with Cregan returning again in 1993 with Stewart’s old Faces cohort Ian McLagan on organ.

Stewart’s connection with his audience is palpable, with numerous audience sing-alongs preserved on these four discs. (A long audience interlude on the first disc’s “Maggie May” brings the radio staple up to nearly the nine-minute mark!)   This expertly-curated set makes the case that Stewart never really stopped rocking, and that even when his records were overly slick, he was still pouring heart, soul and sweat into his live performances. No, for the most part, these live cuts don’t veer too far from the studio originals, and there’s not a lot of onstage banter included, but there’s energy and a pleasing rough-and-tumble quality that make for substantially different listening. Surprisingly, there’s little repetition on this set, as well, so all four discs feel fresh.

The first disc is culled entirely from U.K. performances in December 1976, and practically plays like a “Greatest Hits Live,” with “You Wear It Well,” “Tonight’s the Night,” “I Don’t Want to Talk About It,” and “Maggie May” among its selections. A Night on the Town was Stewart’s most recent studio set, and he drew on it for these concerts in Leicester and Newcastle with “Tonight’s the Night,” “The Killing of Georgie,” “Big Bayou” and “The Wild Side of Life.” Just one month before these concerts, Stewart’s Beatles cover “Get Back” saw release on the soundtrack of All This and World War II, and that’s here, too.   The original six-piece Rod Stewart Group (with Cregan, Grainger, Peek, Jarvis, Chen and Appice) was equally adept with rock and roll and balladry. “Big Bayou” and “The Wild Side of Life” show off stinging guitars and pounding piano inspired by the likes of Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Rock and Roller,” which also heard here in a lengthy “jam” version clocking in at nearly nine minutes in length. And the ballads have a happily ragged feel, with Danny Whitten’s “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” (a hit twice over for Stewart, in 1975 and 1989) a particular standout.

The lusty “Tonight’s the Night” is one of the best examples of the artist’s knack for pop songcraft, and the song is well-served live by his throaty rasp. Grit has always been an important part of the Stewart sound, and if the voice wasn’t usually pretty, it was always expressive; his radio-banned admonition to “Spread your wings and let me come inside” is even more pointed here. (There are, naturally, plenty of audible screams from the ladies in the house.)

On all four discs, Stewart’s interpretations of songs made famous by others are a main attraction. Rod had recorded the first cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel” for his 1972 Never a Dull Moment. It’s hard-rocking, but Stewart and his band emphasized the song’s sweet soul, too. In addition to the rollicking, spirited “Get Back,” the first disc also captures Stewart’s love of Motown expressed via the barroom rock of “(I Know) I’m Losing You” and “This Old Heart of Mine,” the latter in a rather low-key performance. A 1991 performance of the Isley Brothers’ “Old Heart” is also included for comparison’s sake.

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Written by Joe Marchese

May 9, 2014 at 09:56

Posted in Box Sets, Compilations, Reviews, Rod Stewart

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