Whatever good moments Rod Stewart delivered during his performance at the Santa Barbara Bowl on Saturday night, the audience didn’t leave thinking about them.
Instead, fans departed the venue far earlier than they should have, 9:15 p.m., wondering why the singer deserted them without performing an encore.
After a celebratory but over-the-top performance of his 1978 disco hit “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” closed what should have been the main set, a bizarre video of two women singing some unfamiliar and grating song played. This led one to expect it was some interlude leading into an encore, but the houselights over the audience turned on as the video played above a still-darkened stage. A palpable sense of confusion rippled throughout the crowd, until a group of roadies walked onstage, started fiddling with the gear, and made it clear: The show was over.
The shame of this cringe-worthy conclusion was that Mr. Stewart squandered the love of an appreciative audience and despite his apparent age, delivered some satisfying performances that evening. With a large backing band dressed in color-coordinated outfits matching whichever ostentatious getup Mr. Stewart was wearing at the time, the concert had a glitzy, campy atmosphere not meant to be taken seriously. At one point, three of the women in his backup band actually broke into tap dancing.
When Mr. Stewart first emerged dressed in a black jacket with white polka dots, his trademark rasp began in good form on the opening “Infatuation.” As far as his showmanship was concerned, Mr. Stewart engaged the audience by pointing at crowd members, blowing them kisses, conversing with them between songs, and encouraging their participation during numbers. With the same spiky, blonde bouffant he’s been sporting for decades, Mr. Stewart looked in good health and radiated his usual charm, effortlessly endearing himself to the audience. When it came to moving about the stage however, he was no Mick Jagger.
Though his band consisted of three female backing vocalists, with one singing Tina Turner’s lead part on the duet “It Takes Two,” it never seemed that Mr. Stewart was depending on them to cover up his aged voice, which was the most apparent element in the sound mix whenever he sang.
In fact, Mr. Stewart showed best control over his voice when he didn’t have to compete with the sounds of his full band. This was particularly apparent during the first verse of his big hit “Maggie May,” which started with him singing alone over some ambient synthesizer chords before the song shifted into its normal arrangement.
On the other hand, as he sung about the life and death of a homosexual man during “The Killing of Georgie (Part I and II),” Mr. Stewart strained to hit the first part’s highest notes.
Mr. Stewart did two wardrobe changes during the show necessitating he momentarily depart the stage, but his transitions on and off the stage were clunky in execution. Before the singer re-emerged in a blue, floral jacket for the concert’s acoustic section, his backing band performed a rendition of the Mark Knopfler instrumental “Going Home: Theme of the Local Hero,” the same instrumental with which Mr. Knopfler concluded his Santa Barbara Bowl concert on Sept. 20.
But whereas Mr. Knopfler put passion into his rendition, Mr. Stewart’s band treated it perfunctorily, like it was just meant to take up time while the singer got dressed. The backing vocalists’ rendition of “Go Your Own Way,” the transition from the acoustic section back into the concert’s final stretch of full band tunes, felt similarly.
As awkward as the transitions bookending it were, the acoustic sit-down set was easily the highlight of the show, as Mr. Stewart was never once forced to strain his voice. Kicking off with a cover of the traditional Irish song “Grace,” Mr. Stewart sounded genuine and tender, giving what was arguably his best vocal performance of the night. During “Ooh La La,” a song recorded by Mr. Stewart’s early ’70s band The Faces, the concert took on a somewhat nostalgic atmosphere as photographs of him and his former bandmates Ronnie Wood, Ronnie Lane, Ian McLagan and Kenney Jones played on the video screens.
During “You’re in My Heart (The Final Acclaim)” and his cover of Cat Stevens’ “The First Cut Cuts the Deepest” the audience sang the choruses back to Mr. Stewart with full diaphragms and full-hearted enthusiasm. Though the concert was far from perfect up until that point, moments like these made the mere idea of a crushing disappointment seem impossible. What a difference just half an hour makes.