While watching Rod Stewart’s current, celebratory arena tour, “Rockin’ in the Round,” it’s possible to have two nearly opposite reactions, sometimes during a single song.
If you’re willing to give yourself over and take the evening as a two-hour celebration of his essential Rod-ness, the evening can be enjoyed on its own, somewhat campy, tartan-draped terms; the flashes of the old Stewart, the singer who topped the charts and was one of rock’s most compelling performers, whetted the appetite for more.
Stepping out onto a raised platform on a circular stage that’s set on the center of the Staples Center floor (with runways enclosing two pits, each holding some 40 or so fans), Stewart gives the sold-out aud just what they want. He mugs his way through a selection of his hits, from his 1969 solo debut through last year’s “Still the Same….” (J Records), his collection of rock standards. The 62-year-old singer is one of the most winning performers to ever take the stage, and he looks to be having a grand time of it as he swings his mic stand around, waves his hands, flaps his arms around, does some exaggerated Rockette styled leg kicks, and wiggles his bum. The women in the aud — some of them old enough to be grandmothers — respond like schoolgirls, with high pitched screams and orgasmic body language. It’s a well-mounted traveling Vegas revue, rock burlesque of a very high order.
And certainly, that has always been a part of Stewart’s stage persona (the Faces used to take the stage to the strains of “The Stripper”), but at his best, he balanced it out with a laddish impetuousness and an interpretive ability that was second to none.
The latter Rod could be discerned among the flash, costume changes and confetti, letting you know that he hasn’t entirely lost sight of what once made him a respected artist in the early ’70s, but that side of him was mostly obscured by the gaudy entertainer. He might start off number such as “(I Know) I’m Losing You” singing with care and commitment, but midway through, he’d start mugging, and would literally lose the plot, “Every Picture Tells A Story” was marred by the rushed, double-time ending, which turned the joyous, rocking coda into something resembling a cardiac stress test.
The music was equally bifurcated. With a fiddler and pedal steel player on hand, many of the arrangements looked back the sound of his ’70s classic solo albums or the country album he’s talked about recording, but the band was just as capable of playing bloodless pro-rock.
But for all the evening’s flash and production values, the evening’s most sustained perf was the quietest. Strapping himself into an acoustic guitar, Stewart ended the first half of the show with a heartbreakingly gentle and sad take on Ewan MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town.” Originally heard on 1969’s “Rod Stewart Album,” 38 years later, it’s still a stunner. It makes you wonder what Stewart could do if only he showed this side of his personality more. Right now, he’s a singer whose talent outweighs his taste and desire.