"You never know beforehand what people are capable of, you have to wait, give it time, it's time that rules, time is our gambling partner on the other side of the table and it holds all the cards of the deck in its hand, we have to guess the winning cards of life, our lives."
― Josť Saramago, Blindness
Awareness of the passage of time if a gift; most people wander through life without much thought to the future or a awareness of how their past has formed not just who they are but where they are going. Last week I watched Rod Stewart sing a pair of new songs onstage in Chicago with a renewed purpose and vitality. Stewart is touring in support of his twenty-ninth studio record (not including any Faces or Jeff Beck Group records), Time. What differentiates Time from every other record he has ever made is Stewart co-wrote eleven of the album's twelve cuts. After eight covers records in a row, the sudden change in direction was a surprise and one no one could have imagined. Who knew all it would take was having Stewart put his pen to paper for a book? His pen yielded more than a book, but an album that is the most personal he has ever made.
Last year when I sat down and read a slew of music biographies by the likes of Pete Townshend, Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen I didn't think I'd ever get to the one Stewart wrote. On a whim, I picked it up thinking I'd put it down faster than you can say "Maggie May", but the opposite happened, I became engrossed, so much so that when I was done with the book, I rented the audio book from my library to experience it again. In a day and age where rock biographies are a dime a dozen, Stewart's stands head-and-shoulder above the rest. After reading it, I had revelation about Rod Stewart. For decades, every Rod Stewart album was met with disdain by the rock press because it does not sound like the bump-and-grind ecstasy of the Jeff Beck Group or The Faces. The ramshackle grit was replaced with disco grooves, drum machines, melodies made for pop radio and over the last decade, eight cover records of classics (nine if you include his Christmas record). A few fellow writers over at the excellent Popdose website even started a column entitle "Redeeming Rod" where they scoured Stewart's post-Faces career in search of gems that fell in-between the cracks and out of the public view. When I bought the exquisite Faces box set Five Guys Walk Into A Bar, it maddened me to no extent that more people were buying one of the Great American Songbooks in its opening week than would ever uncover the untainted bluesy delight that was Rod Stewart pre-1975. But after reading Rod: The Autobiography antiMUSIC review here) I changed my tune. I no longer hated what he left behind but rather embraced what he became. I forgot how much I loved Out of Order , Vagabond Heart and what a discovery the Storyteller box set was back in 1990. I also could not really tell the difference between Bruce Springsteen doing an album of Pete Seeger covers and Stewart recording several collections of the greatest songs ever written. He has always seen himself as an interpreter of music first and foremost, and he may arguably be the best of the rock n' roll era. The tone of his autobiography was delivered in such winking jollity you can't help but be swept up by it all. Here was the key to his story; he won the lottery of life and he knows it. He still loves the blues and soul he grew up with; he simply projects it in a different light. He creates music for enjoyment primarily and (I am guessing here) he doesn't take himself seriously, so why should we?
Looking upon him with this new outlook, I've simply enjoyed more of his output and when he released Time this past April, I couldn't help but feel it's one of his best all-around solo records because it captures the beat of his heart over the course of a dozen songs. From the ray light optimism of "Beautiful Day" (which would have made a stellar show opener), to "It's Over" which captures the sting of divorce gracefully while "Live the Life" and "Time" hearken back to the minimalist approach of his early records with their toes dipped in the bluesy soul of Stax and Motown. Stewart sings from his heart as if he hasn't in decades. Instead of singing someone else's lyrics, he went deep within himself to create the most honest record of his career. Make no mistake, the production of the record leans towards the pop sheen of his 80's and 90's material, but the arrangements suit the songs. Within each song is a lifetime of love, heartbreak and awareness of what had made his life possible. From the youthful heartache of "Brighton Beach" to the Celtic kick of "Make Love to Me Tonight", Stewart doesn't misfire because it is candid and sincere and I only hope more people discover the record.
The 2013 Live the Life tour is quite a sight to see inside an arena. A stage wrapped in all white with towering pillars that substitute for video screens amidst a back wall video screen and one that would occasionally drop from the center of the top rig focusing on Stewart's every move. It's a bright and appealing set made to make those in the nosebleeds feel a little closer. Depending on the song, Stewart is backed by a passionately remarkable thirteen-piece band that do justice to his solo songs, his jubilant covers and the resolute AM dial rock of his early years. Stewart seemed to do everything right during the course of his nearly two-hour show. After a tease of "I Can't Turn You Loose", Stewart appeared in a silver suit for his take on "This Old Heart of Mine", an Isley Brothers cover he took to the Top Ten in 1990. What I've always loved about Stewart is even when he hasn't made great records, he's found a way to construct a couple of indelible pop tunes you can't help but find yourself singing along with. "Some Guys Have All the Luck" and "Young Turks" harnessed the rousing glimmer of a man who still feels like he has something to prove. How many men approaching seventy could sing a lyric of "Young hearts be free tonight" and mean it?
On "I'd Rather Go Blind"; Stewart transported the crowd to the other side of the world in a tiny club on a small street. Anyone in doubt of his talent was silenced after seeing the fan boy alive and well.
The harp and violinist give "The First Cut is the Deepest" and "Have I Told You Lately" a gorgeousness my keyboard can't convey while "Forever Young" (a duet with his daughter Ruby) revealed layers of sentiment I had forgotten. Maybe it was time away from the song, the crowd's rejoinder, the dueling electric guitar solo, the mid-song drum break colored by bagpipes or the simple fact that he was sharing the stage with his daughter. Ruby is on her own journey trying to find her own way that she did quite well on "Just One More Day" which Dad let her perform in the set. "Tonight's the Night (Gonna Be Alright)" was delicate with the crowd singing the chorus as the band stopped in its tracks. "Reason To Believe", "You're in My Heart (The Final Acclaim)" and show closer "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?" all had moments where the crowd took the song away from Rod stealing it as their own as their voices pierced through the arena roof. With every sing-a-long the crowd too the song and put it inside their own time machine where they'll revisit time and time again reminding them of the past, the present and hopefully their future.
Several changes of clothes, snappy socks and a few dozen soccer balls kicked into the upper reaches of the arena (during "Hot Legs"), found Stewart at the top of his game as the consummate front man, crooning his way through a twenty-plus song set that lasted nearly two-hours. Stewart could have performed forty songs and still left out dozens of essential cuts. Reconciling his pop persona with the artist that is Rod Stewart isn't easy, but onstage, both thrive and are alive. If there was one fault of the current tour is he should have found a way to incorporate more songs from Time. The poignant "Brighton Beach" was infused with weighty reflection. Done during the acoustic part of the set, Stewart lost himself in the performance. The majority of the set Stewart could probably perform in his sleep, but here the artist lives because of the concentration with which he sung every lyric. However, the evening's most affecting moment came with the performance of "Can't Stop Me Now", a buoyant song that recounts his start in the music business that is a love letter to his father. Co-written with his regular collaborator Kevin Savigar, it's evocative and elegiac. Stewart's father passed in the early 1990's and more than two decades later, Stewart has captured the adoration he had for the man in a perfect four-minute pop song. The emotion anchors the song excavating untapped truths. My seats were on the side of the stage and midway through "Can't Stop Me Now", Stewart made his way to where I was sitting and locked eyes with me as I mouthed every lyric and his face lit up knowing the song he wrote for the man who inspired him to reach for great heights has touched someone. Hearing the song, I don't just hear a tale of a boy who ascended to towering heights, but a song that reminds me of my family, my daughter, my struggles and my mortality. For this alone, I'll forever be in debt to him.
Discussing Rod Stewart often brings more questions than answers. Is he a sellout? Is he a man who relinquished his colossal talent in the pursuit of fame and fortune? Is he a man wise beyond his years finding ways to reinvent himself decade-after-decade? On the other hand, is he simply a good old-fashioned rock and roller? In my estimation, he is a little of all of the above. The sixty-eight year old man I watched on the United Center stage in Chicago last week was not just an entertainer but also an artist who is still evolving whose artistic heart beats loud and proud. It may have taken Stewart more than a decade but with the passage of time he is fully aware of what he's accomplished and how much more he still hopes to achieve with the time he has left.
Time is in stores now and Rod Stewart begins a three-week residency in Las Vegas on November 6th followed by another leg of arena shows in Boston, Newark, New York, Philadelphia, Montreal and Toronto in December.
Pictures from the Chicago 10/4/13 United Center show can be viewed on Facebook HERE
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMUSIC Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
Rod Stewart: Grasping the Passage of Time
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