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Rod Stewart is flawed and fearless in Vegas mode at the Xcel

Rod Stewart at Xcel in 2014.

Rod Stewart at Xcel in 2014. Star Tribune

Sir Rod Stewart presents a conundrum.

He can rightfully be deemed a peer (and I’m not just talking knighthood) of the greatest classic rockers to fill an arena: Sir Paul, Sir Elton, Sir Mick. (Maybe not at the front of the line, but he’s in the room.) Yet there’s something about Rod’s ownership of his influences (or lack thereof) that prevents him from earning him the same status.

Sure, a Rod Stewart song is unmistakably Rod—that scratchy voice, that charmingly arrogant swagger—but when the Stones aped blues, they sounded like the Stones; when they aped disco, they still sounded like the Stones (just not very good). But when Stewart jumps between genre, as he often has in his multi-decade career, the influences always threaten to overcome the artist, like he picked them up at a second-hand store. At every stage of his musical output, he’s been either the most cynical rock star or the most eager fan boy in the world.

This makes it easy for me to remember Rod’s classic ’70s peak—“Stay With Me,” “Every Picture Tells a Story,” “Maggie May,” and the like—and forget his forays into new wave (“Infatuation), disco (“Do Ya Think I’m Sexy”), and pure adult contempo schmaltz (“Forever Young”). Which is why I recruited local garage-rocker, Rod Stewart enthusiast, and my welding teacher, Johnny Eggerman (most recently of bands like Sparrowhawk and Cozy) to join me at the Xcel last night.

Johnny: “Dude, I’m not even much of a band guy anymore. I’m mostly a union millwright.”

We arrived at the Xcel after a giddy ride on the light rail (Johnny: “Dude, what if Rod Stewart was related to Patrick Stewart, and they were on TV together, and Rod was a Klingon?”) and I realized something important: Rod Stewart clearly has no fear of being upstaged. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have let Cyndi Lauper open for him.

I have never seen Lauper fail to deliver on stage, and last night was no exception. Her voice? Still great. The songs? Still great. The backing band (featuring New Power Generation’s Kat Dyson on guitar)? Great. The concrete-thick Queens accent and utter fearlessness tying everything together? Oh hell yeah.

Lauper plowed through a set of her best known stuff, from “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” through “True Colors,” near flawlessly, peppering her set with the occasional story or political speech—or, better yet, both. (A tale of her uncle losing all his money in the ’80s and being too proud to accept her support ended with the moral, “This trickle down bullshit never gets to regular people.”) And because I’m required by official City Pages policy to mention it, she launched into a truncated, emotional version of “When You Were Mine,” dedicated to Prince as she teared up, then shifted gears back into her regular set.

Johnny: “Cyndi Lauper killed it, man. She’s charming as hell.”

With little changeover—so little that a good chunk of the crowd was still on the standard beer ’n’ bathroom break—Rod Stewart’s band hit the black-and-white checkered stage with a rousing version of the Bar-Kays’ “Soul Finger” before Sir Rod himself strode on to launch into “Infatuation.” This was the first of several times that Johnny punched me in the shoulder and leapt out of his seat.

What we got for the next 20-plus songs was a combo of Rod Stewart Revue and Rod Stewart: In Review. Rod was in full Vegas show mode, and I mean that as a compliment. From the four clashing patterns he wore in his first outfit to the scantily clad female singers/backing musicians to the stage-set-matching black-and-white checkers of the male musicians, this was old-school showmanship done by a guy who was going to deliver a little bit of every era, with the occasional twist to keep you paying attention. A guy who, in other words, seems to be settling into his elder statesman status.

Vocally, it took some time for Rod to get going—he skipped a lot of lyrics and didn’t hold some notes the way he recorded them way back when—but even that fed into the vibe of the night. And he delivered amped-up versions of “Young Turks,” “Maggie May,” and “Stay With Me.” He delivered a solid acoustic mini-set (“We’re not miming here”) where he took more chances with his voice. Even his downright schmaltz like “Forever Young” had Johnny, on his fifth beer, trying to put me in a headlock.

But you want to know what absolutely killed? When Stewart left the stage and let his immensely talented backing vocalists lead the band in a rousing version of Tina Turner (and that abusive ex)’s “Nutbush City Limits.”

Because Sir Rod Stewart does not give a fuck about getting upstaged, or staying at the center of attention. At least last night, he just wanted everyone to share in the love of all these genres—from ones I love like ’60s garage and soul, to ones I don’t—that he’s been wearing on his sleeve for his entire career.

Johnny: “Rod shook it, dude. He was amazing. I didn’t care about the new stuff—I think only he cared about his new stuff—but everything else was amazing. Except for ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy,’ that song is bullshit.”

Agreed.

Setlist
Soul Finger (band only)
Infatuation
Having a Party
Some Guys Have All the Luck
Young Turks
Tonight's the Night (Gonna Be Alright)
Forever Young
Rhythm of My Heart
Maggie May
Didn't I
Look in Her Eyes
Downtown Train
Instrumental (band only)
The First Cut Is the Deepest
You're in My Heart (The Final Acclaim)
Grace
Have I Told You Lately
Nutbush City Limits
Stay With Me
Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?

Encore
Sailing

Notes on the crowd: To be honest, I wanted to come in all snotty with a line like “Forever Old” and yeah, most of the room was strictly AOL users, but Rod draws a surprising number of gay men to go with the women who rushed the stage like it was 1973.

Critic’s bias: if you can’t tell, I had a ton of fun. Johnny somehow convinced two women who asked us for cigarettes to give us a ride back to my hood, where he went to sleep in my spare bedroom.

Random notebook dump: This is the one-year anniversary of the last time I got a death threat for reviewing a beloved rock act.