After more than a decade mining the Great American Songbook, seventies rock, vintage soul and Christmas carols, Rod Stewart returned to original rock material with the 2013 release of Time. And while much of the titular subject had indeed passed since his last album of new songs, Stewart’s distinctive voice and joie de vivre were happily intact. The spirit that has kept Stewart a superstar is fully on display in the new 4-CD box set Tonight’s the Night – Live 1976-1998. Over its four discs and 58 previously unheard live recordings, we hear Stewart the singer coexisting with Stewart the showman, blazing through songs both familiar and rarely performed.
It’s easy to forget just how damn good a singer Stewart is – but there’s ample evidence on this belated companion to the lavish Sessions box set also produced by Andy Zax and Cheryl Pawelski. It doesn’t hurt that he’s surrounded himself over the years with a group of sympathetic musicians, many of whom were long-serving. Guitarists Jim Cregan, Gary Grainger and Billy Peek, bassist Phil Chen, drummer Carmine Appice (most notably of Vanilla Fudge) and keyboardists John Jarvis and later, Kevin Savigar, particularly make an impression here with the performances between 1976 and 1980. Cregan and Savigar also are heard on the shows from 1981 and 1984, with Cregan returning again in 1993 with Stewart’s old Faces cohort Ian McLagan on organ.
Stewart’s connection with his audience is palpable, with numerous audience sing-alongs preserved on these four discs. (A long audience interlude on the first disc’s “Maggie May” brings the radio staple up to nearly the nine-minute mark!) This expertly-curated set makes the case that Stewart never really stopped rocking, and that even when his records were overly slick, he was still pouring heart, soul and sweat into his live performances. No, for the most part, these live cuts don’t veer too far from the studio originals, and there’s not a lot of onstage banter included, but there’s energy and a pleasing rough-and-tumble quality that make for substantially different listening. Surprisingly, there’s little repetition on this set, as well, so all four discs feel fresh.
The first disc is culled entirely from U.K. performances in December 1976, and practically plays like a “Greatest Hits Live,” with “You Wear It Well,” “Tonight’s the Night,” “I Don’t Want to Talk About It,” and “Maggie May” among its selections. A Night on the Town was Stewart’s most recent studio set, and he drew on it for these concerts in Leicester and Newcastle with “Tonight’s the Night,” “The Killing of Georgie,” “Big Bayou” and “The Wild Side of Life.” Just one month before these concerts, Stewart’s Beatles cover “Get Back” saw release on the soundtrack of All This and World War II, and that’s here, too. The original six-piece Rod Stewart Group (with Cregan, Grainger, Peek, Jarvis, Chen and Appice) was equally adept with rock and roll and balladry. “Big Bayou” and “The Wild Side of Life” show off stinging guitars and pounding piano inspired by the likes of Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Rock and Roller,” which also heard here in a lengthy “jam” version clocking in at nearly nine minutes in length. And the ballads have a happily ragged feel, with Danny Whitten’s “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” (a hit twice over for Stewart, in 1975 and 1989) a particular standout.
The lusty “Tonight’s the Night” is one of the best examples of the artist’s knack for pop songcraft, and the song is well-served live by his throaty rasp. Grit has always been an important part of the Stewart sound, and if the voice wasn’t usually pretty, it was always expressive; his radio-banned admonition to “Spread your wings and let me come inside” is even more pointed here. (There are, naturally, plenty of audible screams from the ladies in the house.)
On all four discs, Stewart’s interpretations of songs made famous by others are a main attraction. Rod had recorded the first cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel” for his 1972 Never a Dull Moment. It’s hard-rocking, but Stewart and his band emphasized the song’s sweet soul, too. In addition to the rollicking, spirited “Get Back,” the first disc also captures Stewart’s love of Motown expressed via the barroom rock of “(I Know) I’m Losing You” and “This Old Heart of Mine,” the latter in a rather low-key performance. A 1991 performance of the Isley Brothers’ “Old Heart” is also included for comparison’s sake.
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Among the highlights from the 1976-1981 period on this set’s second disc represented by concerts in Leicester, London and Los Angeles, you’ll find “Sailing” (Stewart’s biggest hit in the U.K., but a song that didn’t make much of an impression in the U.S.), a feisty and fine “Stay with Me,” and a glossy, uptempo “Passion,” a U.S. Top 5 hit that’s hardly heard today. With Stewart one of the biggest rock stars in the world, this was an excessive period in which he flirted with disco, glam and new wave, but he still regularly revisited his roots. On Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” it’s Rod the blues singer par excellence. (After all, wasn’t his gravelly rasp practically designed for the blues?) Despite the many detours he’s taken as a singer, he’s always come back to the blues as the foundation of his style. (He returns to Dixon’s songbook with “I Ain’t Superstitious” on Disc 3, from 1989.) On “If Loving You is Wrong (I Don’t Want to Be Right),” the singer savors every word and wrings every last drop of pathos out of the song’s wife-vs.-mistress predicament.
Other tracks are more upbeat. Stewart wore the role of the louche lothario well on songs like “Born Loose” and “Blondes Have More Fun,” and naturally, there’s no shortage of over-the-top theatrics on a duet with Tina Turner of (what else?) “Hot Legs.” It’s all a reminder that Stewart is a singer, yes, but also an entertainer and a showman – and he always was, long before he started donning a tuxedo and warbling the Great American Songbook. His rapport with the audience shines through on the marathon medley of “(I Know) I’m Losing You/It’s All Over Now/Standin’ in the Shadows of Love/Layla.”
The eighties were a rather difficult period for numerous artists, like Stewart, whose careers began in the 1960s. Yet if the sound of his records kept up with the times, Stewart’s sound in concert didn’t change too much. He continued to tackle classic soul (Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” and “Try a Little Tenderness”) and blues (B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby”) alongside new material and the hits everybody expected. The third disc of Tonight’s the Night is split between tracks from a 1984 San Diego show and a 1989 set at New Jersey’s Meadowlands; the former concert is the last here to feature stalwart guitarist Jim Cregan until 1993. It also is the last appearance of keyboardist Kevin Savigar, who’s heard on every show here between 1979 and 1984. The Meadowlands gig offers a more expansive sound, with Stewart adding a brass section to the mix.
Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” is a great match for Stewart, who actually keeps his arrangement far more intimate than The Boss’ own. Stewart, backed by acoustic guitar, brings out the folk qualities in Springsteen’s pure-pop melody. 1984’s Camouflage yielded “Infatuation,” “Bad for You” and Rod’s hit cover of “Some Guys Have All the Luck,” first a hit for The Persuaders, Philly soul-style. It’s a treat to hear songs like “Infatuation” and “Bad” which didn’t remain staples of Stewart’s live set. From 1988’s Out of Order, Stewart tackles “Crazy About Her,” his Bob Dylan-inspired “Forever Young,” a cover of “Try a Little Tenderness” and an extended run through “Lost in You.” Unsurprisingly, more electronic textures and a bigger sound had crept in by this point, and Stewart gave his brass section a workout on “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy.”
Disc Four, for the most part, is split between a 1991 Wembley show and a 1993 gig at Los Angeles’ Greek Theatre. Just two tracks come from 1998, the final year represented in the set. The sound on this disc is a bit awry with occasional feedback on both sets, and Stewart is even throatier than usual on the Wembley cuts. A streak of world-weariness had entered his vocals, but there are still highlights. A brassy “Sweet Soul Music” incorporates a bit of “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” and Stewart rips his way through the honking “Baby Please Don’t Go.” “Baby Jane” from the all-but-forgotten Body Wishes is a strong, and unexpected, selection here, and “Handbags and Gladbags” shows the singer in his finest storytelling mode. It should come as no surprise to Stewart’s fans that he sounds as energized on “Cigarettes and Alcohol” and “Rocks” as on his earliest material; his joie de vivre for life and entertaining made his autobiography so much fun, and still makes his shows enjoyable today.
This slipcased set is generally frills-free; the booklet helpfully indicates where each track was recorded as well as the personnel for every concert, but there are no other liner notes. Dave Schultz at D2 Mastering has done a fine job in making each track sound full and detailed. As a document of an indefatigable entertainer doing what he does best over an impressive 20+-year period, Live 1976-1978: Tonight’s the Night is a more-than-alright gift for Rod Stewart’s fans.