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POP MUSIC REVIEWS : Stewart Shows Flash but Old Magic Is Unplugged


DEVORE — Rod Stewart's extravagant new "Unplugged" tour--with some two-dozen musicians and a high-energy pulse--is an achievement for Stewart the showman.

The estimated 16,000 fans at the Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion l-o-v-e-d everything the shaggy-haired singer did Saturday when he took the stage following an opening set by singer-songwriter Patty Smyth.

They cheered his inevitable fanny-shaking.

They sighed at the adorable pictures of his wife and baby projected on the overhead screens.

They danced along in the aisles with his hard-working, soul-man celebration near the end.

As a platform for reasserting the artistry that once made Stewart the most captivating singer in British rock, however, the concert was a severe disappointment.

That's a shame--because this tour offered Stewart a grand forum for regaining that early magic.

Over the years, the likable Englishman has gone from being compared favorably to soul great Sam Cooke to one chided for toying in the late '70s and '80s with a "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy" persona that stopped just short of the Vegas burlesque of Tom Jones.

Saturday's show, sadly, brought another comparison to mind: the hollowness of Michael Bolton.

Stewart is an infinitely more affecting singer than Bolton, but there were moments Saturday when you were hard-pressed to find any revealing emotion in music that was sometimes buried in overly busy arrangements and/or predictable phrasing.

The prospect of seeing Stewart in a relaxed, acoustic "unplugged" format was enticing because it suggested Stewart, at 48, was rethinking his music and presentation.

In such early '70s albums as "Gasoline Alley" and "Every Picture Tells a Story," the young Stewart combined a folk singer's feel for sensitivity and intimacy with a rocker's energy and flash.

After his rambunctious, party-time days in the Faces band, Stewart appeared to be maturing well in the mid '70s--the graceful "You're in My Heart" to the socially conscious "The Killing of Georgie."

But there always was a spirited, vaudevillian side to Stewart, and once unleashed, around the time of the "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy" hit in 1978, he was swallowed by it.

Those showmanship instincts even dominated the 45-minute "unplugged" segment of the evening, eliminating the intimacy needed to convey the poignancy of a song as tender as Tim Hardin's "Reason to Believe." And if you couldn't convey intimacy and heart during the acoustic set, imagine the difficulty of doing it during the robust, greatest-hits sequence that followed.

Elton John has shown for years that it is possible to be playful and flamboyant and still be true to the emotional currents of your music. The thing Stewart needed to unplug for this tour wasn't the guitars, but his vaudeville instincts.

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