'Unplugged' Stewart: Oldie sings goodies


Anyone who has ever worried about being too old for MTV can take heart when Rod Stewart turns up on "MTV Unplugged" tonight (the 90-minute edition premieres at 10).

Like most guests of "Unplugged," Stewart has taken the show as an opportunity to try something a little different. So instead of turning in a set of acoustic-guitar versions of his recent hits, he digs into his back catalog and dusts off a half-dozen or so numbers from his days with the Faces. Even better, he brings along former Face (and current Rolling Stone) Ron Wood to help with the guitar chores.

Considering that it has been 22 years since the two last performed together, their reunion could easily have been treated with the phoney reverence usually bestowed on a "great moment in rock." But Stewart, bless him, prefers to play it as an occasion for old-age jokes, remarking before "Every Picture Tells a Story" that "most of the band weren't born" when he and Wood first recorded the tune.

"Shall we do this with or without glasses?" asks the near-sighted Wood, squinting over at Stewart.

"We're gettin' old . . ." answers the singer.

Now, there's a comment you don't normally hear on MTV.

Of course, part of the reason Stewart and Wood can get away with such lines is that neither really shows his age. True, they do play the show sitting down, but that's out of respect for the traditions of "MTV Unplugged," not because the two need their rest. In fact, Stewart fidgets constantly, looking less like a rock star than a little boy eager to get up and jump around.

Perhaps that's how he's able to assume the young lover's role in "Maggie May" so convincingly. After all, it can't be easy to convince an MTV crowd that you have to be "back at school" when the song itself is older than most viewers.

Still, Stewart's reliance on stuff from the early '70s makes sense on a couple of fronts. For one thing, he isn't competing with his own videos, since there weren't clips made for songs like "Reason to Believe"and "Mandolin Wind."

For another, he's mostly chosen material that was originally recorded in an unplugged -- or semi-unplugged -- manner. So unlike Eric Clapton, who had to radically rethink the likes of "Layla," Stewart is able to do "Maggie May" and "Cut Across Shorty" pretty much as he always had. And not only does that keep the performances from seeming forced, but it makes it easier for his band to apply the customary vigor to harder-rocking numbers like "Stay With Me" and "Hot Legs."

Stewart also takes advantage of the medium somewhat by breaking his performance down into several mini-sets, in which he switched between his regular road band, his band plus Wood, and his band with a small orchestra.

This affords him enough latitude to give sentimental ballads like "Handbags and Gladrags" or Tom Waits' dramatic "Tom Traubert's Blues" the lush orchestrations they deserve without having to figure out a way to work strings into something as lean and mean as "Stay With Me." Likewise, he only works with Wood on those songs the two played as Faces, meaning that the guitarist didn't have to worry about learning all the licks from "Tonight's the Night."

At bottom, though, what makes this edition of "MTV Unplugged" worth catching isn't its cleverness, or even its nostalgia value; it's the passion that Stewart puts into his singing. Whether he's remaking a new tune like "Have I Told You Lately" or revitalizing an old favorite like "Reason to Believe," he invests so much of himself in his performance that you almost forget that it's only a TV show.

Not bad for an old guy.

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