I miss new albums by Stevie Nicks. Tearing the plastic off a Stevie Nicks record that contains completely unknown material is a thrill that listeners have only truly experienced six times since her 1981 solo debut, Bella Donna. Compilations occasionally fill those long gaps with a new song here and there, but they do not summon the same charge as a whole set of songs that Nicks is introducing for the first time.
Scanning the track list of The Soundstage Sessions, portions of a concert Nicks recorded in October 2007 for the PBS Soundstage program, there are eight titles familiar to anyone with a cursory knowledge of Nicks or Fleetwood Mac, plus a cover of “Crash” by Dave Matthews Band and Bonnie Raitt’s “Circle Dance”, which Nicks sings with Vanessa Carlton (a misstep). How does it all add up?
First, irrespective of current record sales, Nicks has every reason to record a new album. She has a wealth of material and her voice remains a uniquely expressive instrument. Whatever the record label prognosticators may argue, there is a demand for a Stevie Nicks album that doesn’t include “Stand Back” or “Landslide” for the umpteenth time. The Soundstage Sessions has both but, to its credit, it also includes gems like “How Still My Love” and “Fall From Grace”, songs that have not yet been tossed into the compilation spin cycle. Disregarding the missed opportunity of a new Stevie Nicks album, The Soundstage Sessions is mostly satisfying. Nicks sounds damn good on all of these tracks, even if the world did not necessarily need another version of “Landslide”.
The set opens energetically with “Stand Back”, where Nicks stridently attacks the words. However many thousands of times she’s sung this song, she treats it in a fresh way here, combining her phrasing on the original recording with some inflections known only to a live audience. Under the musical direction of renowned guitarist Waddy Wachtel, the attributes of the original synthesizer melody line featured on The Wild Heart (1983) are also intact, maintaining a charming early-‘80s quality.
Just as compelling, but in a completely different milieu, is “Sara”. The 1979 version off Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk was macerated in an ethereal atmosphere, which is not a quality that is easily translated live. The band trades tropospheric ambience for earthy, acoustic warmth. Nicks conveys both the romance and ache in the 30-year-old song lyrics with deeper, more resonant vocal textures than her younger self. “All I ever wanted was to know that you were dreaming,” she sings, soaring above the extended arrangement. The set of lyrics following that line, which were barely audible as the song faded on Tusk, are consummated here, telling the whole story of “Sara”. The Soundstage Sessions is essential listening if only for this one especially notable ingredient. It induces goosebumps.
Digging deep into her library of songs, Nicks updates “How Still My Love” with a similarly bravura performance. Despite appearing on Bella Donna, “How Still My Love” was only recently incorporated back into her concert sets. The live reworking actually improves upon the song’s more familiar incarnation and suits Nicks better now than 28 years ago. The song runs twice the length of the studio version, giving the intensity more space to build. The duskiness of the track mirrors the huskiness in her voice and climaxes when she unleashes a guttural belt midway through the song.
Guttural through and through, “Fall From Grace” casts Stevie Nicks in a voltaic light. She is at her rock-and-roll best. On the showstopper from Trouble in Shangri-La (2001), Nicks flawlessly transports the searing fervency of the album version to the stage and breathlessly keeps pace with the band. Her performance gives ample proof that some of Nicks’ best songs never made it to the radio, and it should convince the powers at Reprise that investing in a new album could yield more such modern classics.
180 degrees removed from the unhinged virtues of “Fall From Grace” is a faithful restating of “Beauty and the Beast”, which closed The Wild Heart. Lost in the rapture of her lyrics, Nicks captivates for seven minutes. Accompanied by just strings, piano, and her background vocalists, she draws strength from private, unseen sources. She dubs her performance “the Witherspoon vocal” after a woman who attended the recording of the song in Nashville (apparently not on the same occasion as the rest of The Soundstage Sessions). Whatever the root of inspiration, it elevates Nicks to a whole other plateau of singing.
Performances like “Beauty and the Beast” render The Soundstage Sessions a collection of mostly well-executed selections. It may not be the long-overdue studio album listeners are awaiting, but it attests, with potent conviction, to the powerful, enduring presence of Stevie Nicks.