Rod Stewart, Cyndi Lauper @ Rod Laver Arena
More than any kind of genre or style, the most distinctive quality about 80s pop star Cyndi Lauper is her commitment. Her dynamic vocals, her distinctive look, and her infectious, welcoming confidence can bewitch a kid as quickly as it can pull a listener 40 years into the past.
Lauper arrives in a brash Vivienne Westwood-style suit, sporting a mauve mohawk. Bold colours echoed in the graffiti on the screens behind her, animated to match her unbridled kinetic energy. Opening her set with Hole in My Heart, Lauper’s performance could fuel a show by a punk band a quarter of her age. She writhes on the floor, climbs a speaker stack and inhabits a song about contemplating madness with her particular sense of commitment.
She Bop follows, and as its final chords fade, she turns to us, arm outstretched. “Hello, my darlings. This is the first tour I’ve done since 2019, and I came here first, so come on!” She urges us to show our appreciation. “Hey, one of the Goonies won the Oscar; how about that?” she says, her New York accent making her seem even more like the product of an animator. “See, no matter where you come from; you can win if you stay determined.” It’s not the last advice she dispenses tonight. When you’ve got songs as infectiously fun as The Goonies (Are Good Enough for Me) and as inarguably spectacular as Time After Time (“a song I first played to you on Molly Meldrum’s show,”), it’s hard not to feel as though its advice she has lived.
Her last major hit, 1989’s I Drove All Night, is delivered with a powerhouse vocal performance, but it’s Money Changes Everything, the opening track on her landmark album She’s So Unusual, is where it all comes together; The personality evident in her look, the power of her voice, and the punk defiance still powering her 40 years after the album’s release. It’s magnificent. Girls Want to Have Fun is introduced with Lauper lamenting the loss of civil rights in her home country. Her anthem is illustrated by photos of women at various protests holding up signs that add “-damental rights” to the song’s title in a sequence that is surprisingly powerful. After Lauper closes her set with an emotive True Colours and half an hour of house music that seemed to be the Spotify playlist ’80s Hits’, the lights are cut, and the arena is filled with the nasal whine of bagpipes.
Soon joined by the brittle clatter of a marching band, it’s Scotland the Brave. The stage lights flicker to life, and six women in tight white shirts and black sparkly shorts file on as the humid grind of Robert Palmer’s Addicted to Love begins, in what one can only assume is a self-diagnosis from the man who follows, Rod Stewart. Setting the tone and warming up his vocal cords, the great deception that takes place isn’t Sir Rod asserting his insatiable libido but the women around him. After establishing the illusion that they are unable to play their instruments, the ensuing songs, You Wear it Well, Ooh La La and Some Guys Have All the Luck, give the women the chance to show their considerable chops on violins, harp, piano, drums, tap dancing (while playing the violin) and vocals stylings that demonstrate a range Stewart made a virtue out of not having.
“We’re going to have a fucking good time tonight,” he promises. “We’ve got 24 songs, nearly two hours…depending on your applause.” Stewart’s idea of a good time is covering songs from artists he loves. Sam Cooke (Twisting the Night Away), Curtis Mayfield (People Get Ready) and Muddy Waters (Rolling and Tumbling) all get a reverential introduction, video and an interpretation that makes full use of his backing band; seven guys all dressed in pink suit jackets and black slacks. Stewart leaves the stage several times during the show to change outfits, a point he later chastises music critics for complaining about.
This reviewer is not complaining. When Stewart returns to the stage in a blousy zebra print shirt with artfully paint-spattered jeans to croon his way through The First Cut is the Deepest, it feels laughter and reverence are equally appropriate responses. Throughout the performance, there is a strong echo of Bill Nighy’s pop star character in the film Love Actually. Stewart, now in his seventh decade of touring, embraces the concept of geriatric sex appeal so fully it feels cheesy and transgressive at the same time. I’m not sure what it all adds up to, but it is joyously celebratory, and the crowd absolutely love it.
The music that best suits his brand of sex appeal is driving rock and disco and even if a song doesn’t naturally fit into these styles, he pushes it. It’s a decision that sometimes leaves him cutting the end off words to allow a breath between lyrics or pulling the mic away to allow the other vocalists to carry the song. When he introduces I’d Rather Go Blind as a song he and Ron Wood nailed “in two takes”, the tempo slows, the band chill out, he takes the space he needs to be the blues belter he is, and he sounds eerily like he did when he recorded it 50 years ago. But of course, that’s not what we’re here for, and Stewart is well aware of it. Young Turks follow with its anthemic 80s chorus before he quickly disappears to don a blue shirt and yellow jacket for his “anti-war” song Rhythm of My Heart, which soundtracks images of the Ukrainian war and finishes on a picture of Vladimir Zelenskyy. Then, in a mood whiplash that only Monday’s Academy Awards could match with their transition from Cocaine Bear hassling Malala Yousafzai to a solemn memoriam for Chadwick Boseman, Stewart goes from lamenting the horrors of modern warfare to introducing a trio of women in leopard-print dresses singing Hot Stuff.
From ‘camp disco’ we are suddenly in the show’s ‘acoustic section’. Stewart and the band peel through The Killing of Georgie Part 1, Have I Told You Lately, Tonight’s the Night and his ode to Celtic FC, You’re in My Heart, during which Melbourne football coach Ange Postecoglou gets the big screen treatment. This all adds up to a very strange and singular show. Many songs get Celtic twists, drums and violins, and all get Stewart’s gravelly, hip-swivelling signature that just somehow works, though it’s hard to imagine any modern equivalent.
After a final outfit change, Stewart returns in a black sparkly suit and proceeds to boot soccer balls into the crowd as an introduction to The Faces’ classic Stay with Me. That looming inevitability, D’ya Think I’m Sexy?, has all potential awkwardness extracted from it by Stewart’s decision to introduce it with a photo. “Here’s a picture of me in 1979, dressed in a red cape with my right tit hanging out,” he accurately summarises. “I liked to laugh then, and I still do.” After his disco classic gets an extended breakdown, he and the band leave the stage, returning minutes later for a version of Sailing that sees a forest of phone torches waving across the arena. As he throws up his arms and leaves the stage for a final time, there is the sense that, while Stewart might have inspired a lot of different feelings tonight, disappointment was never on the cards.
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