Music

Rod Stewart: 'This will be the last time I'll play Maggie May in Belfast'

Evergreen rocker Rod Stewart is Belfast-bound again next month, with what he says will be the last of his big rock n' roll shows. He talks to Richard Purden about his future plans, whether the Faces will ever get back together and why when he gets up every day he sings the Irish ballad Grace

Richard Purden

 

Rod Stewart has been performing for 60 years but insists he isn't ready to retire. Picture by Penny Lancaster
 

ROD Stewart's forthcoming pre-Christmas date in Belfast will be one of his last "rock n' roll arena shows". He confirms the news over lunch at Celtic Park as the clatter of knives and forks tuck into a pre-match lunch in the five-star The Walfrid restaurant.

Popping open a bottle of champagne, Rod - immediately identifiable with his rooster hair, jovial laugh and mischievous demeanour - tells me: "This is the last big tour for me - it will be the last time I'll play Maggie May at all these venues."

Sir Rod, who turns 78 in January, is still a long way from retirement with a new album in the can and tentative plans being made for 2023.

Twenty years ago he released It Had to Be You: The Great American Songbook, the first in a series of five hugely successful albums, and he suggests a new show will showcase the best of those recordings.

"I want to move on and I've always wanted to do the Great American Songbook live - it sold 38 million copies. I've also done a fantastic swing album with Jools Holland which is more Louis Prima than Frank Sinatra; I just want to make a change," says the father-of-eight.

Stewart has enjoyed enormous success in a career spanning 60 years which has made him a household name around the world.

He has more than 30 albums and numerous tours behind him, and is regarded as one of the best-selling artists of all time, with more than 250 million records sold. And Ireland is, of course, one of his favourite places to play.

While bringing his rock n' roll shows to an end and looking forward to a swinging future, it is also unsurprising that Stewart isn't tempted to look to his illustrious past.

In recent years there have been rumours of a Faces reunion following a successful one-off charity concert in 2015.

The sense of connection between Rod and his bandmates Ronnie Wood (Rolling Stones) and Kenney Jones (Small Faces, The Who) was still very much alive.

"Six months ago we were close to having something special," admits Rod.

"I was with Ronnie and we were playing the old Faces songs and they were brilliant.

"You can hear it's the Faces but as you get older your voice gets a little lower. I said, 'Ronnie I can't sing them any more'.

"I told him we can tune down and suggested he get me, him and Kenney in the studio with a really good bass player."

When I propose Bill Wyman, who filled in for the late Ronnie Lane, he adds: "Funny enough, I bumped into Bill the other day..."

After bringing down the curtain on his rock n' roll shows, Rod Stewart says he wants to perform his Great American Songbook material for audiences. Picture by Christie Goodwin

If any rock n' roll band deserve a fond farewell it's the Faces; the likes of the Sex Pistols, Guns N' Roses and Oasis all name-checked the London five-piece as an influence.

Their cocky rock n' roll swagger, laced with good humour, was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. "I think with all of those bands it's about the spirit to go out there and make the best music you can and to love each other as a band," explains Rod.

"There was no greed or jealousy with the Faces. With the songs we'd say, 'Anyone got anything to do with this?', and count 'one, two, three' and split it like that. We were fair to each other, adored each other and were all close mates.

"Oasis hate each other - I've had some good times with Noel (Gallagher), he's a good lad and he's been here (at Celtic). It's also the same with the Pistols now.

"I'm flattered beyond belief that all these bands were influenced by the Faces because the Pistols hated us at the time but it's since come out that we were an influence.

"It's like when I first saw Jagger playing at Eel Pie Island in 1963, I thought, 'I can do that', and that's the spirit of the whole thing with all those bands."

Fears that Rod Stewart would leave the Faces seemed to haunt Ronnie Lane, who had been left wounded when Steve Marriott quit his former band the Small Faces.

After Lane's departure in 1973, they carried on but finally disbanded when Ronnie Wood was poached by the Rolling Stones two years later. Lane died in 1997 and keyboardist Ian McLagan passed in 2014.

"Woody and I were the front men and the glam part but Ronnie (Lane) was the heart and soul, he was the engine and humour of the band, much like Keith in the Stones," recalls Rod.

"When he left it was never quite the same. With Ronnie (Wood) I had this feeling he might join the Stones - Mick (Jagger) always said to me he would never take Ronnie from the Faces, who had this fear I was going to leave, although it never happened. Then when Ronnie joined the Stones, I was like, 'Yeah, Jagger you liar...'"

Stewart cackles loudly; there are no hard feelings and unlike Jagger, he found success not only in one of rock n' roll's greatest bands but also in a storied solo career.

Stewart's 1975 album Atlantic Crossing would take the singer to another level when recording with Booker T. & the M.G.'s.

"We were recording in a dry state," reflects Stewart today, "and couldn't get a drink to save our lives. Tom Dowd (producer) woke me up at 10am saying: 'C'mon we're doing Sailing. We recorded the album totally sober at Muscle Shoals in Alabama.

"There was one bottle of Bacardi where we marked the amount with everyone's name. There was Steve Cropper, Booker T and Donald 'Duck' Dunn... I wish I still had that bottle."

Stewart had become absorbed by black American blues and soul from an early age. A high point was performing live with his hero David Ruffin in 1971.

"Oh yes - your heroes don't change and my reference point is still David Ruffin and all the great black singers of that era; Otis Redding, Muddy Waters... all of them.

"David had come through a drugs period and was clean at the time but he wasn't with The Temptations. What a moment that was to perform with him," says Stewart.

"I have a wonderful photo of the two of us at home examining our larynxes. I couldn't work out how he never got a sore throat, I was always having to look after mine."

Stewart performed in Dublin last weekend and was joined by brothers Frank and Seán O'Meara, who wrote the ballad Grace, which tells the story of 1916 Rising leader Joseph Plunkett and Grace Gifford, who were married in Kilmainham jail just before Plunkett's execution.

The song, which has been adopted by Celtic supporters, has had a profound impact on Stewart, who enjoys performing Grace in his own shows.

"It's one of the loveliest and best love songs ever written," he enthuses.

"If you study the lyrics and what it is about, it's just so moving. Every day I get up and sing those words.

"I performed the song on Irish TV (RTÉ's The Late Late Show) and Frank and Seán were in the audience; when they came up it was so emotional."

Earlier this year the die-hard Celtic fan released Touchline, a self-penned single about his Scottish father from Leith in Edinburgh.

"Dad was a very quiet man but a football fan through and through," says Stewart, who remembers his father becoming animated whenever Scotland were playing England.

In the present day, Rod and his wife Penny Lancaster have been moved by the conflict unfolding in Ukraine following Russia's invasion earlier this year.

His family hired three trucks filled with supplies and had them driven to the border of Ukraine, before using the same vehicles to transport a group of refugees to safety in Berlin.

Stewart, a baby when the echoes of the Second World War were still ringing, has spoken of his horror at "another ground war with tanks" erupting in Europe.

He is supporting a family of Ukrainian refugees, and throughout the tour he is dedicating his hit Rhythm Of My Heart - which he describes as an "anti-war song", to Ukraine.

Rod Stewart will perform at the Belfast, SSE Arena on December 20.

Rod Stewart appears on support band Johnny Mac & The Faithful's debut single Me Oh My.

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