reinterpretations and retreads

Unplugged . . . and Seated (Warner Bros.)
Rod Stewart

By Allen Howie

The songs on Rod Stewart's live album, Unplugged . . . and Seated, fall into two categories: those that gain little or nothing in the translation to live performance, and those that are transformed by it. Falling into the first category are the pointless "Hot Legs," a sturdy but unremarkable "Cut Across Shorty," and a by-the-numbers take of "Every Picture Tells a Story." Likewise, both "Highgate Shuffle" and "Stay with Me" are loose, sloppy fun, and so a bit redundant.

Fortunately, the gems outnumber the filler, beginning with a tender "Tonight's the Night" and a sparkling "Handbags and Gladrags," a wistful classic that finally gets the production it deserves. Stewart draws the first truly emotional performance on the album in "Maggie May," the last place you'd expect to find it. It's uphill from there, with a heartfelt "Reason to Believe" and a lush, pretty version of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready." And as overplayed as his cover of Van Morrison's "Have I Told You Lately" might be, it's impossible to ignore the sincerity in Stewart's vocal, and as the video proves, the catch in his voice near the end is the real thing.

Stewart keeps the ball rolling with "Tom Traubert's Blues (Waltzing Matilda)," a timeless tale of lost youth and shattered dreams that he sings as if he's lived it, and reprises Cat Stevens' "The First Cut Is the Deepest" in a version that compares favorably with his earlier cover. "Mandolin Wind," too, recaptures the warmth and innocence of the original. Stewart closes the show by paying tribute to his biggest influence, Sam Cooke, with a soulful rendition of "Having a Party" that ends the record on a happy note.

The much-touted reunion of Ronnie Wood with his old mate is virtually a non-event on record, while the rest of the band, which includes a string section, perform as expected. It's Stewart himself who carries the record, with that world-weary voice and his boyish charm playing off one another. Together, they make Unplugged . . . and Seated the best seat in the house.