First Appeared in The Music Box, April 2009, Volume 16, #4
Written by John Metzger
Thu April 16, 2009, 06:30 AM CDT
The Faces disbanded in 1974, several years after its front man Rod Stewart found greater success as a solo act. Nevertheless, the group continues to loom large in the pantheon of Stewart’s longtime fans. It isn’t surprising, then, that rumors of a reunion of the Faces have circulated with some regularity ever since Stewart was joined by his old pal Ron Wood for a performance on MTV’s Unplugged in 1993. Considering how saccharine Stewart’s output has become — he long ago became a slick and polished pop star, and lately he has been content with mining the Great American and classic rock songbooks for all they were worth — it’s safe to say that his appearance on the program remains the lone bright spot in his canon, at least since the release of A Night on the Town in 1976. Stewart, it seems, has made his best music whenever he has been pushed by his peers rather than coddled by record labels and producers. Unfortunately, he seems to prefer the latter approach.
The collector’s edition of Unplugged...And Seated revisits Stewart’s temporary resurgence, thus serving as a reminder of the potency of his work. It helped, of course, that throughout his appearance on the program, which is presented in both audio and video formats on the updated rendition of the outing, Stewart focused primarily on his early material. Undoubtedly, there was a whiff of premeditation to his set list, which also contained a few of his then-current hits, such as Forever Young and his cover of Van Morrison’s Have I Told You Lately. Likewise, the small orchestra and sizeable backing band that accompanied him gave the entirety of the affair an air of staid professionalism. However, whether it was because of Wood’s presence or because of the voluminous amount of red wine that Stewart drank throughout the show, he somehow managed to escape from the predefined boundaries that he clearly had placed upon himself. As a result, he rediscovered the loose-limbed playfulness of his youth.
At times throughout Unplugged, Stewart was so moved by the contributions of his supporting cast that he barely could restrain himself and remain perched on his stool. His enthusiasm spilled into the performance, too. Tracks like Tonight’s the Night and Maggie May, for example, were gently reconfigured. The former tune, which was recast as a country-soul ballad, alluded to the presence of Wood, who hadn’t taken the stage yet, while the slow-paced introduction that was grafted onto Maggie May established a mood that was tenderly reflective. Even when the arrangements adhered closely to the blueprints of their studio counterparts, Stewart’s passion for his songs ultimately gave a distinctive flair to the material.
With Wood’s help, cuts from Gasoline Alley and Every Picture Tells a Story were rendered with striking force, while Stewart’s emotionally convincing delivery elevated everything else — from the gospel-imbued plea of Curtis Mayfield’s People Get Ready to Tom Traubert’s Blues (Waltzing Matilida), which is more accessible but no less haunting than the original rendition by Tom Waits. There’s no question that the songs weren’t nearly as rough around the edges as perhaps they once were, but the R&B inflections that long have dominated Stewart’s work provided him with the impetus for breathing new life into his material.
In hindsight, Unplugged wasn’t the new beginning that many of Stewart’s fans craved. As glorious as it was, his performance instead was simply a temporary retread of his early material. At the same time, though, it not only served as proof that something creative and vital still stirred within his soul, but it also provided hope — then, much as it does now — that he one day might take inspiration from his past and awaken from the creative slumber into which he slipped after his precipitous artistic collapse. ½
Of Further Interest...
Unplugged...And Seated is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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