Saturday, September 7, 2013

Rod Stewart 'Rarities'-'A Friend to Lend a Guiding Hand'-Rare Rod

  
     The foundation on which Rod Stewart's career is built was laid during the period of 1969 to 1974. During this time he recorded five LP's for Mercury records, as well as recording with and fronting one of the decades best rock and roll bands, 'Faces'. A new CD collection was released this week chronicling Stewart's solo ascent during this time period, focusing on his solo career, but revealing buried treasure from all aspects of his recording life. Rod Stewart 'Rarities' is a two disc collection spotlighting alternate mixes, live tracks, unreleased music and offers a looking glass view into Stewart's impressive and extensive early career. An artist often misrepresented by the media, this segment of Stewart's career is also often overshadowed by his later flash, dash and big hair days. But make no mistake Stewart was and continues to be one of the finest interpreters and vocalist in rock history. A exemplary songwriter, producer and arranger, this collection contains a gritty accumulation of Stewart's folk, rock and R and B sensibilities.

     This collection also focuses on the core band Stewart used for these superior LP's. Along with the members of the Faces, Stewart also augmented his group with Jeff Beck Band drummer Mickey Waller, and long time collaborator and guitarist Martin Quittenton (co-writer of Maggie May). You would be hard pressed to find another studio band containing such attitude and ability. Many of the songs making up this 'rarities' collection are stripped down versions containing unique guide vocals, lacking overdubs, or are dust covered tapes from the webbed corners of the vault that contain a luster as bright as their officially released counterparts.

     The collection begins with the single version of 'It's All Over Now' as hot as the Gasoline Alley version, but slightly streamlined, and featuring a staggering booze scented Faces. Not super rare, but a solid opener. The following song is a 1970  BBC Radio One performance by the Faces of 'Country Comforts' the classic Elton John/Taupin penned number. Containing a bit more personality than the studio version, Rod's off mic asides, and the featured thick live air sliced by Kenney Jones bricklayer drums, make this a soulful definitive version. Stewart's vocals are indescribably special here, listen for yourself.

     The third track is the first of two versions of 'Maggie May' contained on the set, this one being a studio take containing a rough guide vocal with completely different lyrics. Sung convincingly by Rod, this version some unique rhymes and stream of consciousness lyrics, eliciting its own special charm. Lines such as, 'I don't mean to tell ya that you look like a fella, but I'll kick you in the head in one of these days', give a glimpse into the enjoyable listen that these early takes allow the listener. Good stuff.

     After a regal and unadorned alternate version of 'Seems Like a Long Time', based around a divine Pete Sears piano line and snaky Ron Wood guitar segment, an alternate version of 'Los Paraguayos' that sounds like it contains most of the Faces lineup highlights disc one of the set. The acoustic guitar opening meshes like golden gears tucked inside an antique clock. Rod's vocals are amazing, lush and full of fervor, a nice addition being the chuckles and added band directions. Lacking some of the overdubs that would appear later, this version churns with the striding rhythms, and boogies like a late night campfire gathering.

     Two early versions of songs from 'Never a Dull Moment' follow next, featuring band versions in progress and unique in their own way. 'Italian Girls' and 'You Wear It Well' are both ample readings and contain the fat sliding bass lines by Ronnie Lane and Woody that are hallmarks of the record. The songs feel like siblings, eliciting some of the same features as one another, melodies and phrases connecting them musically. 'You Wear It Well', similarly to the early take of Maggie May, holds the same instrumentation, but again contains particular lyrical variations unique to this version. The groove is in the process of being caught and refined, and at this early stage the song is finding its way, standing on its slightly wobbly legs.

     Two more alternate versions of songs from 'Never a Dull Moment' follow with tender readings of Etta James, 'I'd Rather Go Blind', and Jimi Hendrix's 'Angel'. 'I'd Rather Go Blind' was a showstopper for the Faces during their concert tours, and this full band version is no different. Spooky and blue, honest and true, Rod shovels away the dirt and grime, revealing the transparent soul of the song. McLagan's blurry organ embraces Rod's vocals tenderly, live and hot on the mic. In the same vein and vibe the reading of 'Angel' is sensitive and detailed, differing slightly from the official version in its live and rough ready attitude. Again, this is a full Faces version similar to live performances, a fitting tribute to Hendrix.
 
     The first CD of the collection ends with a triad of great music, beginning uniquely with the swinging jukebox reading of 'What's Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made A Loser Out of Me). Previously only available as the 7' 'B' side to 'Angel', 'Milwaukee' is a smoky version, leaving watery rings on the wooden bar in its wake. Containing moaning pedal steel and cascading piano, Stewart croons a lonely mans lament in one of the highlights of the set.

     Originally included on the 1973 'best of' set, 'Sing It Again Rod', a dramatic version of 'Pinball Wizard' from the feature film of 'Tommy' changes the tempo of the track listing slightly. Performed with the London Symphony Orchestra, 'Pinball Wizard' is transformed into a bombastic and mysterious display with Rod's abrasive vocals locking in with the additional choir and weighty orchestration. A nice and often forgotten addition to the line up of songs found here.

     The song that closes the first half of the set, begins a series of three songs moving to disc two from mid 1973 that Stewart recorded with the Faces, minus the recently departed Ronnie Lane. The cover of Cole Porter's 'Everytime We Say Goodbye' spotlights Stewart snugly contented in the land of 'standards', making the song his own through keen production and attentive arrangements. Ronnie Wood's astute and dynamic slide playing adds a new dimension to the the swinging classic. Carrying over and starting the second disc of the collection is the September 1973 non-LP single by the Faces containing, 'Oh! No, Not My Baby' b/w 'Jodie'. Put together for the first time on this collection, this 7' finds Stewart in the gray area between the early rock segment of his career, and his ascension to superstardom in the late 70's when his music would change dramatically (as well as his attitude). 'Oh! No, Not My Baby' contains the unmistakable Faces groove augmented with some soaring strings that take the edge off slightly. This track finds Rod laying down some of the best vocals on the set. The 'B" side "Jodie' is bouncy and animated, and is a musical collaboration between McLagan, Stewart, and Wood. Anchored to a descending Woody guitar lick and taught Jones snare hits the song is irresistible, eventually sliding into a very 'Stoney' breakdown. This collection was made for hidden 'B' sides like the aforementioned, songs otherwise obscured by the bigger hits or forgotten because of their disappearance from LP track listings. Great tune.

     The rest of disc two, minus the closing track is dedicated to Stewart's final Mercury LP, 'Smiler'. This record unfortunately, to even hardcore Rod fans seems to get the short end of the stick. It does come during a time of transition for Stewart, and a time of musical sterility for him and his studio band. The LP unlike his previous efforts was ripped apart by critics, fortunately for us this set contains some moments left off of that album, that in hindsight, now give us a better glimpse into its creation and its strengths. 'So Tired' and 'Missed You' are both Stewart originals left off the LP and only released posthumously on the his complete studio recordings set "Handbags and Gladrags'. Both songs are similar melodically, hence their being left off of the original album, but they both draw special attention to Stewart's emotive vocalizations. Proof that sometimes Stewart's interpretations are strength enough to carry even the more mundane compositions. 'So Tired' in my opinion is the stronger of the tracks, with a tasty keyboard/piano combination underpinned with some crispy acoustic work. 'So Tired' is repeated toward the end of the disc in a earlier studio version, a quick glimpse into the songs development, raising questions regarding its disappearance from the album lineup.

     A most memorable song on the set and a personal favorite of mine in all of its guises is, 'Think I'll Pack My Bags', a early work out of 'Mystifies Me', a song recorded on both Ron Wood's solo LP, and Ian McLagan's solo album. A testament to the strength of the song composed by Wood and Stewart is that three of the five members of Faces would record it. It's one of those goose bump numbers that seems to get better every time you hear it. The version here is sparse and a practice run through, but all of the elements of the track are available in their formative stages. Wood's caress of the melody line, inspecting every dusty nook and cranny is a pleasing insight. It's mystifying why Stewart did not include this on his 'Smiler' LP. Without sounding overblown (which I have been accused of) this is legendary, important, and a great reason to hunt this set down.

     The next three tracks are all alternate versions that can be found on the 'Smiler' LP in their official versions. A piano based reading of Dylan's "Girl From the North Country' that somehow draws more attention to the words, if that's possible, is inspiring. An intimate version of the Goffin/King/Wexler standard, '(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Man' is another reason to own this set. You can feel Stewart's breath on the microphone in addition to the closely knit instrumentation that turns the 'rock room' into a darkened chamber at Morgan Studio's in 1974. Cigarette butts in overflowing ashtrays, empty bottles of sticky Brandy, like fallen soldiers leaking their left over life blood, Rod behind the glass, alone at the microphone, eyes closed, letting it go. Must have.

     Starting to bring the rarities set to a conclusion is an extended early version of 'Farewell' that contains all of the hallmarks of those early Stewart/Quittenton compositions. The resonant acoustic guitars, full of personality are such a joy to hear, I would be hard pressed to find another record from this era that could get that distinctive ring from their acoustics, a special hallmark from this time period on Stewart's recordings. Cheers to Woody for being a catalyst in the charisma expressed on these LP's, he is an invaluable cog in the Stewart music machine, and obviously has done the same thing for his 'current' band.

     Both 'You Put Something Better Inside Of Me' and 'Crying, Laughing, Loving, Lying' are covers that missed the 'Smiler' LP and remained in the vault until the previously mentioned 'Handbags and Gladrags' collection in 2002.  Both contemporary (at the time) songs, Stewart again injects the songs with his soulful personality and tempered production techniques. Both songs feel 'upgraded' by Stewart for lack of a better term, and illustrate that Rod was willing to look anywhere for inspiration, and would not discriminate when considering songs to cover, even checking the 'hit parade'. For 'unreleased' songs both feel polished, and have all of the details found in Stewart's finished and classic works. Special note to the arrangement of 'Crying, Laughing, Loving, Lying' which retains the original Labi Siffre acoustic vibe, in addition to elongated organ, silky violin, and edge of disco drumming.

     The collection closes fittingly with a jagged and lovely live version of 'Maggie May' from September 28, 1971 on BBC radio featuring the Faces. This version is also available on the Faces box set, "Five Guys Walk Into A Bar'. This is an edgy reading that finds Rod and the boys in full glory, at their peak, performing a definitive version of Stewart's most beloved song. The song becomes something different when performed live on the stage, the sum of the parts changing it from its humble 'folk' beginnings into an anthem of universal status. Not much more needs to be said about the power and majesty of this performance.

     Whew, that is the new and aurally pleasing Rod Stewart 'Rarities' collection, a splendid and welcome addendum to his classic Mercury discography. Within this set you will find special moments of unheard goodness, recognizable moments in new ways, and hidden vault treasures unearthed for our smiling ears. For fans of Stewart this collection nestles nicely in with his official catalog, offering fresh insight to musical moments that have already left footprints on our psyches. For those who are not familiar with Stewart's authoritative early years, this is the kind of assemblage that can make you a fan, leading you down the untrodden path toward discovering his immense influence and unparallelled abilities as a composer, singer, and producer.

Rod Stewart-Los Paraguayos
Rod Stewart/Faces-Jodie
Smiler Full LP

    

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