Nearly a quarter century has passed since Warner Brothers issued the excellent Storyteller, which covers all the bases of Rod Stewart’s career up to 1990 but features only a few previously unreleased goodies. Finally, though, the record company has unlocked the vaults and swung the doors wide open. In 2009 it delivered the revealing Rod Stewart Sessions, a four-CD box that contains 63 previously unavailable outtakes, demos and other rarities recorded between 1971 and 1998. And this month brings what feels like a companion box: another four discs from roughly the same period (1976–1998), containing 58 more previously unissued performances, all of which were recorded in concert.
While the sound quality is good throughout, it’s generally not quite on a par with today’s state of the art, which is understandable given that some of this material is more than 30 years old. As Stewart fans well know, moreover, his career has taken all sorts of twists and turns, not all of them well advised, and you’ll find some evidence of that on any collection of his work that spans more than two decades. That said, this nearly five-hour-long collection features more than enough winning performances to make it a must-buy item for any serious fan.
The program opens with 15 tracks—including spirited versions of some of Stewart’s best and best-known songs—culled from three December 1976 UK concerts. Among them: a nearly nine-minute version of “Maggie May,” his first number-one hit, from 1971; “”I Know I’m Losing You,” the Motown chestnut that he originally recorded with Faces that same year; 1972’s terrific “You Wear It Well”; and “Tonight’s the Night (Gonna Be Alright),” which topped the charts around the time of the performance preserved here. (It’s worth noting that Stewart, whose songwriting often garners less attention than it deserves, wrote or cowrote three of these four songs.)
Then we jump the pond and a few years for six tracks from a 1979 L.A. concert. Among the best of them are two medleys, one blending a trio of Motown and R&B standards with a mostly instrumental excerpt from “Layla,” the other segueing from Sam Cooke’s “Twistin’ the Night Away” to a snippet of Stewart’s own “Every Picture Tells a Story.” (The latter also appears here in an excellent standalone version from 1989.)
The late 70s and 80s found Stewart floundering at times, as you can hear in such disco-influenced pablum as the 1977 hit “Hot Legs” (here in a 1981 duet with Tina Turner), “Infatuation,” “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” and “Passion.” But we also get a cover of Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” that’s good enough to start you thinking about how other Bruce tracks might sound in Stewart covers; a sweet reading of Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay”; the self-penned “You’re In My Heart (The Final Acclaim),” a memorable 1977 hit; and a terrific, hard-rocking version of “Lost in You,” expanded to more than eight minutes to make room for an instrumental section and mid-song monologue.
There are some strong entries from the 90s as well, most of them from a pair of concerts in London and L.A. Stewart delivers an emotive version of one of his best covers ever, Tom Waits’s brilliant “Downtown Train,” and reprises such early favorites as “Cut Across Shorty,” “Mandolin Wind” and “Handbags and Gladrags.” We also hear another medley (“Twistin’ the Night Away” again, this time paired with another Cooke classic, ”Chain Gang”) and more soul, including Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” and Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music.”
Stewart has long been a skillful genre-hopper, and he certainly demonstrates that here. He also lives up to his reputation as a great interpreter. Moreover, he is a fully engaged, inventive concert performer who rarely seems content to simply serve up the hits. Throughout this collection, he offers new, frequently expanded versions, many of which find him turning the spotlight on his first-rate bands for extended but never overly long jams. If you’re a fan, this package won’t disappoint. If you’re not, it may just turn you into one.
Jeff Burger (byjeffburger.com) edited Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters, both published by Chicago Review Press.