If the discerning music fan needed any further proof that Rod Stewart is a long, long way from the better days of the Faces and Every Picture Tells a Story, they had only to tune into PBS a few weeks ago. In the midst of one of their annual pledge drive, they were broadcasting Stewart’s latest concert DVD, One Night Only: Rod Stewart Live at Royal Albert Hall, as well as offering it as a special gift to anyone who pledged more than $100. While PBS is a very worthy cause, it is anything but hip.
What’s more, however, Stewart was actually a live guest during the pledge drive, encouraging viewers to contribute to the station, while answering questions from an interviewer. The interviewer told him a story about how when he was a teenager his mother castigated him for listening to Stewart’s music, which she lumped in with the rest of the crazy rock music that was making her son act strangely; 35 years later, however, she asked her son to buy her Stewart’s album of American standards as a Christmas gift. To his credit, Stewart took the story very graciously, saying he’s very happy to reach as many people as possible, although he does feel a bit sorry for the “blue-hairs” at his concert, whose ears are close to bleeding during the rock portion of his show.
As someone who considers Stewart’s 1971 Every Picture Tells a Story one of the great albums of the 1970s, all of this is terribly confusing. Is Stewart a sell-out? Has he lost his edge? I mean, it seems he’s been losing his edge for 20 years now, so why am I surprised? But how could someone whose version of Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time” I rank as one of the sweetest and most moving recordings ever, become so… mundane?
One Night Only: Rod Stewart Live at Royal Albert Hall, however, is surprisingly enjoyable. The concert alternates between Stewart playing his rock and roll hits, like “Maggie May”, “Hot Legs”, and “You Wear It Well”, and him donning a tuxedo and performing the classic American standards that have been the stuff of three straight smash albums. The crowd cannot get enough of Rod. During the rock songs they are singing along with every word, dancing in the aisles, clapping their hands high above their heads, while during the standards they sway back and forth, as if Rod were singing directly to them. I had no idea that Rod Stewart fans were so devoted; when Stewart allows the crowd to sing an entire verse from “Maggie May”, for a second I felt as though I were watching a Bruce Springsteen concert. That’s how attached the crowed seemed to be to Stewart.
For the standards, performed during the second half of the show, a dapper Stewart is backed up by the 60-piece BBC Concert Orchestra. Stewart’s velvety voice seems to have been made especially for singing such classics as “Blue Moon” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”. On these tracks, he is smooth and charming, bringing that particularly Rod Stewart-esque brand of intrigue and play to these intriguing and playful songs. The highlight of this set is the guest appearance of Chrissie Hynde, who joins Stewart for a duet rendition of “As Time Goes By” (on the album As Time Goes By: The Great American Songbook Volume II that role is filled by Queen Latifah). It’s a pleasure to see two pop-rock stars taking such pleasure in interpreting such a classic. Hynde’s voice is flat and deadpan, contrasting nicely with Stewart’s expressiveness and candor. Plus, they engage in a very playful back and forth while exchanging lines, making the entire performance a delight.
Rod Stewart is a wonderful performer, who knows how to have fun and not take himself too seriously. That’s not to say he treats everything like a joke: he camps it up for “Hot Legs”, yet sings “Gladbags & Handrags” with sincerity and emotion. I can only conclude that Rod Stewart doesn’t care one iota whether or not we all think he’s cool. He’s doing what he wants to do, and if that appeals to both 20-year-olds and 80-year-olds, well, so be it. One Night Only stands as a wonderful testament to the sexiness, grace, humor, and sincerity that is Rod Stewart.