The show opened with six sequined blondes in a line, hair pulled back, each holding a white guitar. Rod Stewart then ambled onstage and began belting out Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love.” As I studied the stage with my opera glasses, I soon noticed that the gorgeous blondes were not actually playing their guitars–those were just props! The music was all coming from the three guitar players and two drummers behind, all in matching cherry red jackets and white sneakers. That’s when I knew we weren’t in for a normal Santa Barbara Bowl rock concert, but more a Las Vegas show. By evening’s end, after at least two complete costume changes and a release of hair, I recognized that Rod’s blondes weren’t just for show: one was an angelic harpist, one a virtuoso violinist and another a fiddle player (“What’s the difference between a violin and a fiddle?,” Rod asked, then answered, “Who the f— cares!”), one sang like Tina Turner, and while the other two just danced and sang backup, one was absolutely stunning.
With such a large corpus to choose from, I was happy that Rod sang songs that had all been my favorites, with the sole and expected exception of “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy.” He reached back in the catalogue, starting with “You Wear It Well” (I’ve been meaning to phone ya, from Minnesota…), moving on to “Gladbags and Handrags” and a slow-starting full-on production of “Maggie May.” I was thrilled to hear him sing “The First Cut Is the Deepest,” and I similarly wallowed in “Tonight’s the Night,” “You’re in My Heart,” “Rhythm of My Heart,” “Have I Told You Lately,” and the longest cut, “Forever Young.” In a concession to his age (one year older than me), he and the blondes sat on chairs for a not-really “acoustic” set near the end, but his voice was strong and he danced and kicked, sometimes footballs, just enough to keep things visually interesting. The show rocked on for an hour and forty minutes; there were no stops but a number of intervals where his girls or the instrumentalists, including a Black saxophonist a la Clarence Clemons, took center stage and gave Rod a break. One sincerely felt he wanted to play longer and was cut short by the Santa Barbara 10 pm curfew, which he kept alluding to as the hour drew near. It was all polished but endearing, expected but surprising.
Cheap Trick was the opening act, two-fifths original. They played so loud, or the sound mix was so bad, that you couldn’t hear a melody, let along any lyrics. We sat through it, nervous about what the sound augured for the main act. When Rod Stewart came out, we could hear every word.