When I realized that The Faces finally really broke up, I was devastated. The Kinks and The Faces were (are) my favorite bands, and during Ray Davies’ Preservation rock opera era in the early 1970s, the boozy raucous songs from Rod Stewart, Ronnie Wood and Ronnie Lane clearly took the lead. Even more amazing was that every year, The Faces would release and album and so would Rod Stewart, and in those days the material on both was largely interchangeable. But soon enough, the lure of solo fame and the huge dollars waiting in the American market led Rod in a different direction. Where before he might have been saving his better songs for the solo projects, it was all a moot point now. First Lane quit in disgust after watching the band he started being referred to as Rod’s backup group once too often, then Wood succumbed to the umpteenth invitation to join the Rolling Stones, and it all ended with a whimper, not a bang. It just…dissolved. Ironically, although Stewart had the most critical success, Wood, Lane and Ian McLagan all released solo albums that were probably better records overall; had they been able to continue to pool that talent one can only imagine the heights they might have reached.
Then one night in February 1993, Stewart performed a set recorded for MTV Unplugged and brought along his partner in crime, Ronnie Wood. The show and the subsequent album were a hit (hitting #2 on Billboard and spawning four singles) and seemed to re-energize the perception of Stewart as a serious singer, songwriter and interpreter. Unplugged and Seated drew heavily on his early years (a logical choice when Woody was sharing the stage) and although lesser solo hits like “Hot Legs” and “Tonight’s The Night” were included, the arrangements were stripped down and improved. Stewart had always chosen cover material well, and the performances of Van Morrison‘s “Have I Told You Lately” and Tom Waits‘ “Tom Traubert’s Blues (Waltzing Matilda)” are especially strong here. In the coming years Stewart would write less and less and record sets of rock covers (When We Were The New Boys and Still The Same) as well as a career-changing move with the Great American Songbook series.
I guess technically I could have also listed this under the New Album header, since it is a newly released CD/DVD combination, and the audio version of the show does include two songs (“Gasoline Alley” and “Forever Young”) not included in the original album release. The audio sounds great, of course – a warm but full core band of multiple guitars, mandolins, banjos and keyboards propelled by solid rhythm from drummer David Palmer and bass player Carmine Rojas. Several songs benefit from the addition of three soulful background singers and/or a small orchestra, the presence of whom keep Stewart comically pinned to a three foot radius on stage. There are times when he looks like he’s about to launch out of his chair, while the more pensive songs allowed him to simply sit and get caught up in the moment. The space limitation brought the focus squarely upon his personality and his voice instead of the flamboyance that he had gotten used to as an arena rock act, and it must have felt like the old days in more ways than one.
I’m thrilled to finally have a DVD version of this brilliant performance to enjoy again and again, the warmth and camaraderie between Wood and Stewart is palpable, a genuine bond we haven’t reaped the rewards of for so many years. Besides being excellent songwriting, collaborators, they simply bring the best out in each other; Wood is fine as a Rolling Stone, but he was majestic in The Faces. When he’s onstage, the camera wisely focuses in on the two-shot, and it’s obvious we are watching two friends who have probably run the gamut of emotions with each other but are truly savoring the moment. Wood doesn’t always flash – Jeff Golub frequently plays the lead lines while Woody plays rhythm – but it’s a real treat to watch him energize the room during “Maggie May”, “Mandolin Wind” and especially “Stay With Me”. When they leave the set, arm in arm, headed for the pub (and no, they weren’t kidding) how I would have loved to tag along for when the real fun probably started…
The show itself appears to be the original broadcast performance, complete with fade-outs at what would have been the commercial breaks. This also means that it’s still an edit from the actual show, so in addition to missing “The First Cut Is The Deepest” and “Highgate Shuffle” (included on the CD) we don’t see “It’s All Over Now”, “The Killing of Georgie”, “I Was Only Joking” and “Sweet Little Rock’n'Roller”, which never aired. Rhino‘s package, as usual, is attractive and contains solid liner notes from one of my favorite writers, Bud Scoppa, a man who was there the first time around. Video is decent quality and probably as good as can be expected from a sixteen year old taping, but there are no extras – no commentary, no retrospective interviews, no rehearsal footage. Perhaps none exists, or perhaps this Collector’s Edition will someday be eclipsed by the Expanded Collector’s Director’s Cut. (I kid.)
I don’t know how I feel about the long-rumored Faces reunion. Not having Ronnie Lane there to celebrate would be hard to swallow, and if the guys got together and play “Debris” and “Glad and Sorry” and “Ooh La La” without him it would be bittersweet. Ian McLagan has been keeping Ronnie alive from the stage at his every gig by featuring several of his songs, and Kenney Jones has quietly continued to make certain that the legacy of both The Small Faces and The Faces is rescued from legal and managerial madness. No matter what kind of arrangements would have to be made between the four surviving members (read: what Stewart’s manager would insist upon), I can’t see Wood or Jones or Mac participating unless Ronnie’s legacy got its due. But one can’t help wonder how things might have been different had The Faces been able to pull it off in 1993, when Ronnie would have been able to benefit spiritually and financially, let alone a few years earlier, when he might have been able to participate even in limited fashion. Rod Stewart might have surrounded himself with more technically proficient musicians over the years, but the results never exuded that pure soulful joy since he made his Atlantic Crossing. But more on The Faces another time, and at greater length, which they deserve.
Although I would have liked a complete, full-featured release of the show, Unplugged and Seated is a set to be treasured as is, a wonderful reminder of just how good Rod Stewart can be when he puts his heart and soul into it. On that night in February 1993, he definitely did.