Rod Stewart is one of the world's unlikeliest pop stars, a man whose dancing recalls ''Seinfeld'''s Elaine at the J. Peterman office party, whose voice bridges the gap between Bob Dylan and Marge Simpson. Recently, he has found great commercial success wrapping his golden wheeze around the Great American Songbook: 2002's ''It Had to Be You''... went quadruple platinum, and last year's ''As Time Goes By''... entered the Billboard 200 at No. 2. His sweeping 44-city tour, From Maggie May to the Great American Songbook -- which wraps up in Birmingham, Ala., on April 24 -- is thus a two-part affair, with the first half featuring the pop songs on which his career has hinged for decades and the second showcasing the standards that have resuscitated his career after his 2000 thyroid surgery.
Today's Rod Stewart is, like Stewarts past, concerned with his looks. His skin is bronzed, and the blond shock he wears on his head is not so much hair as plumage. When his tour stopped at Atlanta's Philips Arena, he opened the show wearing a crossing-guard-orange jacket and tight pants, belting out ''Forever Young.'' True to the spirit of that 1988 hit, the 59-year-old spent the night strutting like a younger man.
Stewart has a decent track record with big, broad love songs -- case in point, ''Have I Told You Lately'' -- but artists who think ''Rita'' rhymes with ''sweeter'' should tread lightly when approaching the Songbook. Stewart lacks the vocal agility and precise delivery necessary to sing nuanced standards like ''As Time Goes By.'' He flubbed ''My Heart Stood Still'' so badly that he had to start over.
''I must tell you,'' Stewart said at one point, ''I love these songs with a great passion.'' Then someone delivered him a martini on a tray. Stewart took a sip and asked the audience, ''Now, where was I?'' Good question.