Recorded at some of the largest auditoriums in the world, Rod Stewart's Christmas-season cash-in, Absolutely Live, is a mostly noisy record that, in all its grand showbiz gesturing, plays to the back rows. Stewart's entrance, to the strains of "The Stripper," is strictly burlesque, as is the program that follows. True to that fanfare, he offers all the bump-and-grind hits from his disco playboy period and winds up stripping some of his worthiest older songs of their affecting nuances.
In a few respects, Stewart's intentions seem noble enough. This is a true warts-and-all live recording, without the cosmetic surgery that is routinely performed upon many so-called in-concert albums. And Stewart is a generous host who knows how to keep the party spirit high. But what's hot in the concert hall is lukewarm in the living room, and the undoctored sound of an adoring audience soon becomes a major annoyance. There are times when all the screaming and whistling will convince you that a family of parakeets has nested inside your speakers. A more unfortunate flaw is that passable readings of Stewart favorites die when the singer plays to his canniest "entertainer" instincts and thrusts the mike into the crowd. Thus, "Hot Legs," "Tonight's the Night," "You're in My Heart" and "Maggie May" feature the woeful warbling of 15,000 or so cheerful punters. For posterity's sake, it's too bad he didn't keep the mike to his own lips. Too bad, indeed, because it's quite a smorgasbord of hits that Rod's built up, from salty rock & roll come-ons to tug-at-the-heartstrings ballads. They're all here, though you'll have to pick and choose to find live tracks that improve on the studio originals. Two such cases, oddly enough, are the disco pleasers "Passion" and "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy," which seem somewhat more human (and no less dance-worthy) before a crowd of people.
Love him or hate him, Stewart does have his act down cold. The fourth side of this two-record set is a textbook-perfect treatise on dynamics. From the cocky-rooster preening of "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy," he changes gears for the wistful "Sailing," a song whose anthemic strains have brought a tear to many an Englishman's eye, and the one time it makes sense for performer and audience to raise their voices together on record. Next up is the lugubrious ballad "I Don't Want to Talk about It" — the torch singer in Stewart gets his chance — and the side rides out with one more balls-to-the-wall rocker, the Faces staple "Stay with Me," replete with campy cheerleading from the ever-lascivious Tina Turner and the sexless Kim Carnes.
In its best moments, Absolutely Live has a certain waggish charm — Roddy is a lovable brat, after all — though as a package, it's far from indispensable. Like the Who, the Stones and any world-class pop entourage of longstanding, Stewart's concert program, cues and all, is eminently predictable. It's hard to forget that this is big-time rock, not rock & roll, and that it thrives in cavernous places where performers communicate in broad, stagey strokes to an audience able to answer only with a dull roar. For all its pleasures, the motivations are basically, and blatantly, manipulative. That's entertainment.