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Back On The Strip

June 04, 1998|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Forget the three separate concerts Rod Stewart gave at Sunset Strip locales Tuesday evening.

Forget the surreal sight of his tour bus--surrounded by a lights-flashing police escort--shuttling him and his entourage the few blocks up and down the Strip between stops.

If the idea was to evoke the decadent days of the early '70s when Rod the Mod and his band Faces were among the rockers who made the Strip their playground--a time recalled by the renewed rock vigor of Stewart's just-released album, "When We Were the New Boys"--only one thing really offers an accurate measure: the party afterward.

Well, it's the '90s and Stewart is 53. So no, the midnight wingding at the Mondrian Hotel, where Stewart held court in the poolside Skybar, was not a debauched Bacchanalia. No naked groupies splashing in the water. No Hollywood hangers-on passed out in the corners.

Sigh.

The evening's entire extravaganza, in fact, was quite civilized. The only new evocation of decadence was the ode to excess, "Cigarettes and Alcohol," which Stewart--effectively mixing new material with exuberant renditions of such sing-along favorites as "Maggie May," "Hot Legs" and Sam Cooke's "Havin' a Party"--made a set centerpiece in all three performances Tuesday. And "Cigarettes" isn't even his own song, but a Faces-modeled number borrowed for the new album from English rock's current bad boys, Oasis.

The tone was set from the start at Tower Records' parking lot, where an autograph-signing session and subsequent 40-minute set by Stewart and his new young backing band was marked by a very un-"old days" orderliness. Even with a reported 2,000 fans turned away from the screened-off, limited-access lot where attendance was restricted to 1,480 by West Hollywood officials, crowd behavior was nothing less than polite. Riot on Sunset Strip? Heavens, no.

But there was boisterous appreciation from the fans who had the chance to get up close and personal with their hero--even some who have made a hobby of getting up close to him. Mary Stewart (no relation) and her 15-year-old daughter, Catherine Rose Stewart, and other of their friends and family were uncontrollably giddy after getting autographs--and kisses on their cheeks--from the star before the Tower concert.

"I've loved him since I was 4," exclaimed Catherine, as her mother showed photos she carries of her and the singer from several past encounters.

Near them in front of the stage set up in the parking lot, fortysomething friends Pattie Clary, Carol Banks, Suzi Dering and Sherlyn Marsh--all members of the official Stewart fan club, Smiler--exalted at finally having gotten to ask Stewart if he'd enjoyed the banners and goody baskets they've taken to his Beverly Hills house each year on his birthday. Yes, he had, he told them, to their delight.

Migrating up to the Roxy following the Tower appearance, the scene remained marked by polite order as fans barely had to be asked by police to stay nicely on the sidewalk rather than spill into the street. Inside the overflowing club, though, both Stewart and the fans seemed energized by the tight quarters. What was a frisky set at Tower took on an extra spark here, with Stewart extending it with "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" (offered with winks of self-deprecation) and a churning, hard-driving version of his Faces classic rocker "Stay With Me."

After this, a winded Stewart, sitting on his bus before taking the stage for the final performance at the Whisky, admitted that it wasn't like the old days--but wasn't meant to be.

"We never did three concerts in a night in the old days!" he said, shaking his head at the very notion of attempting this back when decadent excess was the norm.

But even as he rested on the bus, the relatively clean-living Stewart of today seemed a bit overwhelmed by this effort, having at that point lost count of the number of performances he'd completed. He thought he'd already done three by that time, before his wife, Rachel Hunter, confirmed to him that he'd only done two. His voice was also showing the strain, tightening up during the break.

On stage, though, Stewart held up quite well, and so did the music. At the Whisky, the Scotsman actually seemed more boisterous, his trademark rooster 'do matted down by sweat (though it had been re-spiked between performances), his leg kicks, mike-stand twirls and cockeyed grin more and more boyish by the minute.

Clearly, the idea wasn't to relive or revive the old days but to reconnect with the spirit. As such, the key song in each set was "Ooh La La," a song Stewart co-wrote with his Faces mate Ronnie Lane, who died last year after a lengthy struggle with multiple sclerosis. When done by the Faces in 1972, it was an ode to youthful bravura, elegantly tempered by the onset of adult maturity. Today, both in these concerts and on the new album, it's an affectionate, wistful and proud look at the spirit of the young rooster that remains alive in Stewart's middle age.

"I wish that I knew what I know now when I was younger," Stewart sang in the chorus. But the message of the shows seemed to be that he knows it now, and he wears that knowledge well.

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