Rod Stewart had decided to move away from the mechanical sounds of his ’80s-era albums long before he taped one of MTV’s best-loved episodes of Unplugged.
His massive world tour in support of 1991’s Vagabond Heart already included a 30-minute “sit-down” set. “I think acoustic rock is probably the best vehicle for me,” Stewart told writer Gary Graff in 1993. “I’ve never really been at home with synthesizers. I’ve made some albums with them – wildly, desperately – but now I understand: I’m a guitar man.”
So, Stewart wasn’t attempting the kind of career reset associated with previous Unplugged episodes featuring Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton from 1991 and 1992, respectively. Instead, his would be more of a natural extension.
Manager Arnold Stiefel told The New York Times that the taping would allow Stewart to “revisit songs, rethink a few of them.” More importantly, however, he said Unplugged would give fans a chance to “just hear that voice this many years later, simply and right up front and very dry with no effects on it.”
The intimate setting brought out surprisingly tender emotions, as Stewart memorably broke down while singing Van Morrison‘s “Have I Told You Lately” in February 1993 at Universal Studios. “Actually, I don’t know what brought it on,” Stewart told Graff. “I mean, I dearly love my wife and my child but, God, I didn’t expect that to happen. It was very un-me; it’s usually football matches I get teary-eyed at. But it made for quite a magical moment, didn’t it?”
It certainly wasn’t the only one to be found on the hit album version, released as Unplugged … and Seated a few months later on May 24, 1993. No small amount of credit goes to the presence of collaborator Ron Wood, Stewart’s former bandmate in the Jeff Beck Group and Faces.
Listen to Rod Stewart’s ‘Reason to Believe’ From ‘Unplugged’
Wood had long since moved on with the Rolling Stones. He still released the odd solo project (including 1976’s Mahoney’s Last Stand, 1979’s Gimme Some Neck and 1992’s Slide on This) and participated in side projects like the New Barbarians with Keith Richards, but Wood hadn’t sat in with Stewart in decades.
The spark was immediate, though Wood was reminded of something from their long-ago days as bandmates: “He just makes you feel good,” Wood told Guitar Player, “as long as you’re playing in the pocket.” In many important ways, Unplugged … and Seated was best described as a welcome rediscovery of this shared raggedy past.
Wood co-wrote three of the performed songs, including the title track from Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story; “Stay With Me” from the Faces’ A Nod Is as Good as a Wink … To a Blind Horse; and the title song from Stewart’s Gasoline Alley, released as a collector’s edition bonus track. But he’s also an invaluable presence on “Cut Across Shorty” (from Gasoline Alley) and the previously unreleased “Highgate Shuffle.”
Their camaraderie wasn’t just musical. Introducing “Reason to Believe” from Every Picture Tells a Story, Stewart quipped, “We haven’t done this together since we recorded it 22 years ago. Most of the band weren’t born. Me wife was only 1!” Stewart also made a couple of friendly digs at Wood’s “new” group, the Stones.
Listen to Rod Stewart’s ‘Have I Told You Lately’ From ‘Unplugged’
For Wood, the return to a stripped-down setting more in keeping with their older material made perfect sense – especially as Stewart turned the corner on 50. “So much of his work is in that vein, but I think people have lost sight of that,” Wood told Graff. “I get the feeling it’s something he is more interested in now.”
Turns out, fans were, too. Unplugged … and Seated shot to No. 2 in both the U.S. and the U.K., while selling more than 3 million copies in the States. Stewart’s live version of “Have I Told You Lately” became a gold-selling Top 5 smash, while “Reason to Believe” – once a forgotten A-side after DJs turned over the single to find “Maggie May” – belatedly reached the Billboard Top 20.
“I bought a Mercedes, which I named ‘Rod Stewart’ because I got a big check for the Rod Stewart Unplugged record,” series producer Jim Burns said in I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution. “He essentially paid for that car.”
More importantly, Stewart seemed to have finally exited the career version of a “wrong street,” he said. “I think I’ve put all that straight in the last five or six years,” Stewart told The Times in 1993. “I think I sing the songs a lot better now. I think the voice is better now than it’s ever been.”
Rod Stewart Albums Ranked
From soulful early records to that huge disco hit to five volumes of the Great American Songbook, there isn’t a genre he hasn’t tried.