People my age scoffed. “Why are you going to see Rod Stewart?” they asked me, their faces and squeaky inflection reflecting sheer confusion and genuine bewilderment. With Justin Timberlake having played here recently and The Killers and Mumford and Sons set to descend on the Phoenix Park this week many people my age seemed unable to comprehend why anyone would opt to go see an ageing performer when they could simply wait and bask in the festival atmosphere that is sure to descend upon the Phoenix Park later this week. Why, they persisted, did I choose to see a man facing the onset of his seventies over artists whose songs were all released while I was actually a living breathing occupant of the world?
I’ve been to see Rod Stewart twice. He’s the only performer, aside from Boyzone (and considering how I was around eight at the time they don’t really count), who can boast this distinction in my life. However, looking around the RDS I got the distinct impression that my attendance record paled in comparison to many of the revellers there, the majority of whom proudly wore their old concert t-shirts like tribal banners. There was a distinct sense of a family unit, albeit a somewhat dysfunctional one, about the supporters as though they had all been coming together to do this for years in a kind of bizarre clan ritual. Groups of women decked in concert t-shirts from Las Vegas sat happily chatting to men in comical mullet wigs as though they were long lost friends whilst Celtic flags (Rod’s love of the football club has been well documented over the years) fluttered overhead like tribal banners, a visual reminder of how united we all were in that moment. So what is it that inspires such devotion? What is it that makes perfectly respectable, predominately middle aged men and women, hang precariously from the back of rickshaws screaming obscenities at the opulent and formidable entrance of the Four Seasons in the hopes that the crooning geriatric we have all come to see will appreciate the spectre of otherwise perfectly normal people acting like loons?
Despite the professionalism evident throughout the entire performance there was no doubt that Rod is something of an old time del boy; a bad boy done good and one that bloody well knows it. The swagger of cockiness permeated the entire show but so too did a genuine sense of overwhelming gratitude; not bad for someone who has been around since the 1960’s. Despite the longevity of his performing career it was clear as he gazed in wonder out over the crowd gathered at the RDS that here was a performer who still manages to derive sheer delight from delivering a show. There was no pretence to his enjoyment, nor was there any pretence to the heavy North London accent with which he addressed us. There was no smooth imitation American accent, no attempt to hide the fact that despite the millions now lounging happily in his bulging bank account somewhere Rod is the product of a very working class background. A background which he openly embraces and displayed on screens for us all to witness as shots of himself as a youngster with his Dad were projected throughout the show. Despite having enough money to guarantee himself a premium box seat at any of the major premiership clubs pictures of him bawling like an extra from Les Mis when Celtic beat Barcelona at Parkhead were unashamedly blown up for the entire arena to witness. The main drum set was emblazed with the Celtic emblem and shots of Rod as a teenager in the Celtic kit were proudly presented to the crowd alongside images of Scottish pipers whilst footballs with the Celtic crest were lobbied into the crowd during ‘Your in my Heart’. All of the above spoke of pride, pride in very humble origins.
There were no pictures of his glossy homes or his fancy cars, of which one can only assume there are many, and he looked out over the crowd with a twinkle in his eye; the kind a child gets on Christmas morning when they are finally allowed to open that one present under the tree that has been taunting them since its arrival. His utter astonishment at his own success and the fact that he has managed to somehow pull it all off was infectious and ultimately, utterly endearing and thoroughly entertaining. There was no sense of entitlement and when it came time for ‘Reason to Believe’ and ‘Maggie May’ he openly admitted that if it wasn’t for a disc jockey in Cleveland mistakenly playing the latter in the belief that it was the A track he wouldn’t have had the success that he has had. Astonishing to think that after fifty odd years, and numerous successes, he is still humble enough and honest enough to openly acknowledge the disc jockey and the fact that he is, to all intents and purposes, something of a fluke. Many artists would have thoroughly forgotten the disc jockey by now.
Rod also managed to engage us as an audience and this was none more so evident than during his rendition of ‘The First Cut is the Deepest’ in which he bequeathed his tie to the newly married couple who had clearly left their wedding to attend the concert-impressively she was still decked out in her dress! He continually interacted with the couple, much to the besotted pairs delight, at one stage even telling the groom “you did well there son” before advising them to make it last before wryly admitting “God knows I can talk”. He was ridiculously magnanimous in letting people take photos and even informed the stewards who were attempting to move people back from converging on the stage that he had no problem with people coming forward to take photos if they went back to their seats after. Of course this was tantamount to declaring open season at a hunter’s convention and the front of the seating area was promptly swamped with fans eager to get closer to the action many of whom refused to go back to their seats and spent the rest of the concert close enough to count the singers sweat beads. His generosity undoubtedly angered those fans who had shelled out good money for front and centre seats but it was a move that showed a generosity of spirit not present in today’s stars who generally like to be as far removed from their fans as possible. He also gave us what we wanted; what we had paid the ticket price for. He’s an artist thoroughly aware of his appeal and although he did play some of his newer numbers he was very humble about it, even apologising beforehand and asking the audience to bear with him. It’s the sign of a good artist that can not only spot what the audience wants but also delivers it, unlike Justin Timberlake who used his concert to launch his new song ‘Take Back the Night’ much to the bemusement of many fans. Take note Justin: we come for the sing along.
Despite his rapidly advancing years he still managed to command the entire stage like a pro; admittedly he’s no Michael Jackson but would we really love him as much if instead of collapsing onto his back on stage and doing a rather accurate impression of a bicycle he did the moonwalk? Probably not, not if the level of screaming achieved when he sashayed his way from one end of the giant stage to the other was any indicator. We squealed like Catholic schoolgirls and howled like banshees when he twisted his microphone stand around his body and wiggled those aging hips. Sure all the moves looked like they had been recently released from a 1970’s time capsule but he threw himself into them with such vigour that you couldn’t help but be utterly bewitched by the whole energetic display. Unsurprisingly this high octane performance quickly took its toll and by the fourth song he was looking decidedly worse for wear as he stumbled around the stage looking like a chain smoker who had just completed the London marathon. Despite this his level of enthusiasm, and more importantly his vocals, never once showed signs of distress and we were left in awe at witnessing a man deliberately defying his bodies age to entertain us, and boy did he succeed.
Not only did he manage to entertain us more crucially he managed to control us, or rather sing with us and not just to us. I went to see Bon Jovi when they played here in Slane a few weeks ago and despite being in the business for nearly thirty years and having innumerable gigs under their belts I watched on in utter fascination at their inability to manage the crowd’s enthusiasm. Jon was left languishing a few bars behind as the 40,000 plus crowd decided to sing faithful renditions of their greatest hits irrespective of the fact that the band were sometimes clearly set on delivering slightly altered versions. Did we care? Nope, if anything our screams grew louder as we attempted to drown out the bands struggles to keep abreast. Rod however was having none of that and as we got slightly carried away during the chorus of ‘Maggie May’ he pulled us back instructing “just a second” like a parent affectionately scolding a favourite child. Rods ability to connect with his audience was quite something to behold and goes a long way towards explaining the sea of mullet wigs and globe trotting t-shirts.
The show was not only vibrant but also littered with his trademark acerbic humour. Rod said what he felt like when he felt like it and there was no blatant attempt to butter us up or sweet talk us by telling us we were the best fans in the world or that Ireland was his favourite place like so many artists resort to. His version of an encore was to walk off the stage for a handful of seconds before returning to declare “I can’t be dealing with this encore rubbish you know I’m gonna do another one”. I’m not sure they come much more laid back or blunt than that!
Despite the crowd at the RDS this laid back attitude and casual demeanour meant that the show felt far more intimate then it actually was. His charm and whit immediately made the audience feel at home and his evident refusal to take himself too seriously meant that the show had a much more relaxed vibe as though we were all sitting in our locals rather than the pitch side in the gigantic RDS stadium. His self mockery was evident throughout and he had no problems joining the audience in laughing at himself as just before launching into ‘Hot Legs’ he gamely displayed a giant picture of himself in drag to the crowd. Strangely he looks good in drag! With every new costume change (sparkling monstrosities that ranged from a black glittering tuxedo jacket, a satin green suit accompanied by a bright, ostentatious tie and finally a bright paisley tuxedo jacket that looked suspiciously like it was designed by someone who was on acid….presumably the same acid batch that produced the green suit) a giggling Rod would turn to the crowd and ask us our opinion. When he declared that the satin green monstrosity was in our honour we even forgave him for referring to it as our national colours, yellow after all can look an awful lot like orange in some lights….right? Rod himself seemed particularly impressed with the little black numbers his back-up singers were squeezed into, especially when the poor girls sat down and it became evident that the dresses really were far too short for such a mundane, everyday activity. He took great delight in telling the poor girls to keep their legs crossed and jokingly declaring that the shortness of their dresses had nothing to do with him. Just as my usually dormant feminist side was about to rise up in utter outrage he giggled to himself that he should keep his own legs crossed and promptly perched himself on a seat and proceeded to cross his legs in the campest of manners. The show even ended on an appropriately tongue in cheek note when, again during ‘Hot Legs’, he displayed a quote he gave to Rolling Stone magazine in the 1970’s in which he declared “I don’t want to be singing Do Ya Think I’m Sexy at 50 and become a parody of myself”. Rod, it would seem, is in on his own joke.
Was it all a little bit camp, a little bit, dare I say it, pantomime? Well yes but only in the best of sense; it’s what I imagine the great showbands of the 70’s were like: you had to be personable and get the crowd on your side as that was how records were sold in the days before DJ’s and record magazines did all the selling for you. And make no mistake about it Rod seemed to genuinely relish this side of the business; he seemed to genuine relish having a laugh with his audience and as a result you felt an intimate sense of connection with him as though this was an intimate gig rather than a gig in front of thousands of people in the RDS. He even stopped the band during ‘Lady Jane’ because he had mixed up the words and gotten “carried away” before restarting a pitch perfect version of the classic a second later. Rod Stewart performing in a rural Irish pub would be the same as he is in the RDS one suspects.
His refusal to turn tricks that most performers no doubt consider essential is the main highlight of the show. Rod gives a hundred percent throughout and even declares towards the end that there will be no miming on this stage before hotly claiming that he can name quite a few artists around today who resort to it. But as the curtains fell after only one encore number, and what has to be one of the quickest stage exits in history, and an astonished silence descended on the RDS many may have wondered if maybe he would benefit from some form of trickery, some assistance. I overheard one such woman on the way home in the bus complaining that he wasn’t as good as the last time she had seen him and indeed I secretly had to admit that he wasn’t quite as good as he was when I seen him perform at the O2 a number of years ago. Yet as we both launched into examining the differences we were both forced to admit that it was still an incredible show. Despite the fact that the show was only two hours long and he looked to be on his last legs for at least an hour and a half of it there is no doubt that it will go down as one of the best gigs I have ever witnessed. It was real, honest, funny, witty, charming and engaging. If two hours is the price we pay for seeing a show that is void of the trickery and frivolous embellishment that dominate most concerts then it is a price we should all be only to glad to pay.
Why pay gastronomically high prices for modern artists who will walk on stage and let the backing track, the pyrotechnics and all the other technical wizardry deliver the show for them? Why not, the next time you are preparing to do battle with ticketmaster to get tickets to see whatever gig is the being billed as the latest ‘must see’, take a minute to have a look at the other artists coming to play here over the next few months. Ignore the scowls and looks of utter astonishment on the faces of your friends and go and see what it’s all about, go and see an actual singer simply sing his guts out for an entire show and then come back and tell me that you, and all those tiny raised hairs on your arms, couldn’t see the difference. Why not go and see an artist that has not one or two hits to their name but rather who commands a dizzying array of absolute classics? Why not go see a singer relaxed enough to sing with you and not at you, or one comfortable enough with themselves, and the audience, to have a laugh and thoroughly entertain us? If you do consider giving an aging rocker a look instead of some of the more manufactured, over hyped modern acts that are descending like locusts on these shore then I hear Billy Joel is playing here on the first of November. Now where do I go to see a man about a rickshaw……
Written by Kiara Murphy.