Leeds Arena 11th December 2019
Words: Ross Halewood / Pictures: Ross McGibbon
I never particularly liked Rod Stewart until I saw him live. Sure, he got a pass for the Faces and some early solo tracks at a push but, as an avid reader of the music press at the time, I went along with the ‘accepted narrative’ that Rod was a bit naff without really questioning why. Being a willing friend, a mate of mine at the time really wanted to go see him and needed someone to go with, so I happily obliged. To my surprise, I had a great time and it dawned on me that, once you got past the leopard-skin kecks and mullet, Rod Stewart is one of our great blue-eyed soul voices and has released a great string of singles over the years.
Seventeen years on, I still speak of that gig very fondly, so I was more than happy to review this show at the First Direct Arena, one of the nation’s better ‘shed’ venues. The curtain goes up to reveal deliberately gaudy images of Las Vegas, suited and booted backing band, glamourous backing singers (blonde, obviously). In the centre, striding across the stage with a big old grin, our man kicks off with a song that could well be about himself, ‘Some Guys Have All the Luck’. Forget recent health concerns and understated reflectiveness, Rod’s up for a night on the town tonight and he’s brought an impressive arsenal of hits.
There are a few detours from the tried and tested routine. ‘Dirty Old Town’, the old Ewan Maccoll standard covered by Rod many years before the Pogues, is performed seated as is his recent take on the Easter Rising ballad, ‘Grace’. While his American Songbook albums are often lambasted, Rod is more comfortable these days as crooner than rocker. That’s not to say he can’t still belt ‘em out, but his vocal strength is at its best and most soulful on the heart-rending ‘Killing of Georgie’ and Van Morrison’s ‘Have I Told You Lately’.
A D-Day tribute accompanies one of Rod’s finest singles, ‘Rhythm of my Heart’, while his cover of Tom Waits’ ‘Downtown Train’ is accompanied by footage of Rod’s celebrated model railway construction. ‘Do You Think I’m Sexy?’, that old fan-dividing chestnut and the song that has cemented the image of Rod in the minds of most people for better or worse, is accompanied by a shower of balloons throughout the arena. It’s a lot of fun and hard to resist joining in.
Arms sway along to traditional main set closer, ‘Sailing’, one of many occasions tonight akin to a Barry Manilow gig (that’s a good thing, by the way!) before Rod the Mod rocks off with the sole nod to the Faces, ‘Stay with Me’. Off he pops and, in typical British fashion, I hear someone picking holes in the setlist the moment he steps off stage. So there’s no ‘You Wear It Well’, ‘Reason to Believe’, ‘Every Picture Tells A Story’ (or ‘Hot Legs’ but this being the #metoo era, it’s for the best). Mostly, it’s the big hitters, the Rod Stewart songs you may catch on any given commercial radio station but it’s clear that even the overly-familiar material is delivered with feeling and the voice remains strong. Long may he continue.