Rod Stewart was playing “Smokestack Lightning” on harmonica in 1962 when British singer Long John Baldry discovered him at London’s Twickenham train station and enlisted him to go on tour.
It was a humble start for a soccer-crazed R&B fan who rose to become a swashbuckling rock superstar who gave us such hits as “Maggie May” and “The First Cut Is the Deepest."
Stewart's new album Blood Red Roses is out Friday and stands up to his competition this month from peers such as Paul McCartney and Cher, who also just released new work. McCartney, in fact, has his first No. 1 single in 36 years on Billboard's Top 200 chart.
At 73, Stewart can still belt and warble with youthful vigor. Even his upper register remains intact, as evident in the enchanting song “Cold Old London."
The songs, most are new and he wrote or cowrote 11 of them, are hardly groundbreaking. Each track seems to revisit an earlier passage in Stewart’s musical journey, but as a whole, Roses feels fresh. It’s a welcome return to originals and a more natural setting for his raspy vocals and ease with pop, rock and R&B. That is to say, it’s not another awkward dance with standards.
Stewart’s blue-eyed soul savvy announces itself in the opening track, “Hole in My Heart,” a plaint about struggling to cope with life’s simplest tasks after a breakup. The spirited, joyful “Rest of My Life” is an appealing and unapologetic Motown throwback.
The blues-rocking “Vegas Shuffle,” a clear nod to his early band the Faces, taps into Stewart's harder-edged roots, while “Give Me Love” relapses into ’70s disco and his version of the Muddy Waters signature “Rollin’ & Tumblin’” dips into Delta blues. Club thumper “Look in Her Eyes” flirts with contemporary electronic.
Especially poignant is the somber “Farewell." In it, Stewart grieves the loss of longtime friend Ewan Dawson, who died five years ago. “We met in 1963. I saw him in our local coffee shop and he had a pair of Cuban-heeled boots on. I thought, ‘Hello, I thought I was the only one in Muswell Hill with those boots!’ We made friends and got up to all the adventures that young men did then: went to the Marquee Club in Soho, chased girls and everything. I spent the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s with him; he was a real soul brother.”
In 1968, many rock fans got their first earful of Roderick David Stewart from guitarist Jeff Beck’s groundbreaking Truth album. The singer tackled diverse material from Willie Dixon’s “I Ain’t Superstitious” to Show Boat tune “Ol’ Man River” with a rugged grace.
Every Picture Tells a Story, his 1971 solo breakthrough with hits “Maggie May” and “Reason to Believe,” set him on a skyward trajectory. He’s sold north of 100 million records worldwide, racked up 16 top 10 singles and been inducted twice into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (solo and with the Faces).
"Tonight’s the Night,” “The First Cut Is the Deepest,” “You’re in My Heart,” “You Wear it Well” and “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” put Stewart at the forefront of pop music in the ’70s. His chart standing and credibility declined in the ’80s and ’90s, though he did galvanize critics and fans with 1991’s Vagabond Heart.
It Had to Be You: The Great American Songbook, released in 2002, was the first of five volumes of standards delivered over a decade, during which time he also issued sets of soul and rock oldies. The Songbook albums sold handsomely but were largely dismissed by critics as feeble facsimiles.
A master interpreter, Stewart certainly has wrapped his husky croon around every manner of tune, but standards were never an organic fit. The songwriting and rootsy sound that won fans over 50 years ago? That’s the standard he should shoot for and Blood Red Roses is a step in that direction.