Likely planned back in 2009, when the four-disc box The Rod Stewart Sessions 1971-1998
appeared, Live 1976-1998: Tonight's the Night
is another deep dip into Stewart's archive -- a four-disc box containing 58 unreleased recordings crossing three decades. Although there are no liner notes in this affordable collection, it has been assembled with purpose: the first disc is devoted to material from 1976, when Rod was at the peak of his game, perhaps the biggest rock star in the world; the second runs from 1976 to 1981, an era obscured by the success of "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy" and Blondes Have More Fun
; the third covers the '80s, when Rod still had hits but was flailing ever so slightly, but as it progresses from 1984 to 1989, it's possible to hear him gain strength; the final disc is nothing but the '90s, including acoustic material recorded in the wake of his hit MTV Unplugged
in 1993. Stewart undoubtedly went through some ups and downs during these three decades, but the nifty thing about Live 1976-1998
is how it continually focuses on his core strengths: his affinity for folk, his passion for rock & roll and soul, his knack for interpretation, and his desire to please. Much of the best stuff is the earliest because there's still a rawness to his performances, but the surprising thing is how hard the 1976-1981 disc rocks -- the records may have been slick but his concerts weren't -- and how impassioned the early-'90s cuts are; the 1993 "Cut Across Shorty" is as breakneck as his original studio version from 1970. Sometimes the old pro gets a little too slick -- this is especially true of the set-closing versions of Brit-pop standards "Cigarettes and Alcohol" and "Rocks" -- but the amazing thing about Live 1976-1998
is how often Rod delivers, always sounding assured, big-hearted, and ready to party.