Redeeming Rod: Once in a Blue Moon

Written by Music, Redeeming Rod

A lost Rod Stewart album…from the ’90s? It’s gotta be awful, right? Not so fast, says Matthew Bolin.

After finding his greatest amount of critical success in a decade (not to mention his first US top 10 album in nearly fifteen years) with 1991’s Vagabond Heart, Rod Stewart entered the studio in the Summer of 1992 with producer Trevor Horn to record the proposed follow up, Once in a Blue Moon. The sessions would find Stewart recording a wide range of covers, from pop to folk to R&B, even a little bit of what might have been classified as “indie rock” at the time. All of the songs set for the album were eventually released (at least in some version) on US or UK albums, but the original, conceptualized Once in a Blue Moon has never seen the light of day. Not until now, with its exclusive first issue via Rhino Records.

Why wasn’t Blue Moon released? Blame Eric Clapton. Slowhand’s 1992 Unplugged album was a career-defining moment, selling over seven million copies in the US alone and garnering a handful of Grammy Awards. It seems likely that Warner Brothers (label home to both Clapton and Stewart) decided to strike while the iron was hot, and release Stewart’s own Unplugged concert from February 1993 as an album three months later instead of the studio work he had recorded the previous summer. And, as decisions go, financially it was a sound one. Unplugged…and Seated went triple platinum in the United States, a sales level that Stewart had not hit with an album since Blondes Have More Fun in 1978 (and one Stewart has only repeated with the first of his “American Songbook” releases in 2002).

But what of the album itself? Was it worth canceling its release so that it didn’t compete with the live album? In my opinion, it was not worth chopping up the final product into disparate parts, and spreading them over two continents, because the quality of Once in a Blue Moon in its intended form is at least on the level of Vagabond Heart, and definitely better than any studio work he’s released since then. In fact, perhaps one of the most shocking things, besides the cohesiveness that Horn’s production brings to proceedings, is in the quality of Stewart’s voice. And I mean that in a positive way.

There are more than a few tracks that not only find Stewart not falling back on his “whisper/scream” technique of substituting vocal technique for actual emotion, but actually find him in near classic voice, especially on a vicious run through of Bob Dylan’s “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” and Tom Waits’ “Tom Traubert’s Blues (Waltzing Matilda).” The latter was the single song from the Once in a Blue Moon sessions that would appear on Unplugged…and Seated, but Stewart is in much, much better voice on the studio version. Other high points include Rod’s take on Roy “C”‘s 1965 song “Shotgun Wedding,” The Contours’ “First I Look at the Purse” (presented here in a slower version on the album proper, and a faster-tempo bonus track), and one of my personal favorites, a rather dramatic version of Stevie Nicks’ “Stand Back,” featuring an orchestral introduction that elevates the song to almost operatic heights.

Additionally, the three songs that eventually made it onto Stewart’s actual studio followup to Vagabond Heart, A Spanner in the Works (“The Downtown Lights,” “Windy Town,” and “This”), actually work better in the flow of this album than they do in the more hodgepodge construction of the later work–though I must say that “This,” the only song written for the Once in a Blue Moon sessions, and the second single off of Spanner, does stick out here like a bit of a sore thumb: too much traditional late-period Rod schmaltz, and not enough of the natural energy that most of the other tracks have.

There are two other nice bonuses here  in Rhino’s “re”-issue. The first is the inclusion of an extended 19-minute workout on “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar,” in which the song takes shape live in the studio to eventually become the powerful high point of the finished album. The second is the retro packaging. As this disc was supposed to come out in 1993, Rhino Records treats it as if it’s just been waiting in a warehouse for sixteen-plus years, and ships it in a cardboard long box. For those who thought you’d never be able to add to the long box collection in your closet or attic (you know you have one), now is your chance.

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