Plugging in to Rod... Like Eric Clapton and a few other graying rockers, Rod Stewart has found occupational rejuvenation and renewed respect thanks, in part, to MTV's once-irrepressible "unplugged" phenomenon. Stewart's 1993 release, Unplugged ... and Seated, was a humble (for Stewart) forward-into-the-past affair that sold five million copies. Last year's patchy but admirable A Spanner in the Works didn't do quite that well, but it still capitalized on the stripped-down feel with Top 40 success. So, given Stewart's booster shot of rightly earned credibility, why am I still left wondering what's really going on under that teased blond mop -- or, more specifically, forecasting a letdown to come?

Maybe it's because I've come to expect the unexpected from old Roddo, and for good reason. After all, he's dumbed me into submission so many times already that it's hard to believe any dorky stunt is out of his grasp. And if everything about Stewart reeks, as some claim, of contrivance, then he only has his late '70s/early '80s self to blame. During that relatively brief period, Stewart astounded everyone by going from a singer of phenomenal depth, personality and grit to a chirping latexed jet setter who was the butt of locker-room jokes worldwide. In the process of pissing off fans of his late '60s/early '70s work, which included stints with the Jeff Beck Group and Faces, Stewart made piles of money with half-wit wonders such as "Passion," "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" and "Young Turks." Thanks to all that income, Stewart never appeared bothered by any of it -- although he did finally come out and admit the "tastelessness" of 1979's disco debacle, Blondes Have More Fun, possibly his worst release ever (though, of course, a big seller).

One thing that partially justifies Stewart's presence on this earth -- other than the periodic spurts of transcendence provided by "Maggie Mae," "Every Picture Tells a Story" and "You Wear It Well" on classic-rock radio -- is his self-mocking sense of humor, even if it has stretched into self-parody at times. Remember that goofy, voyeuristic video for "Infatuation"? He had to be fooling with us -- dancing around in hotel windows as he spied on a gorgeous supermodel. Though, hold on: he did marry Rachel Hunter, didn't he?

Not that any of this really matters to the thousands of die-hard Rod-ophiles who'll be paying upward of $65 to see the singer "in the round" at The Summit Monday. Along with his ability to laugh at himself, another Stewart bonus has always been his hyper-energetic live shows, during which he never has a problem making a spectacle of himself, working the crowd like some moussed-up ringleader of a rock and roll dinosaur circus. Now 51, Stewart has eased up on the huggy tights, fiery flashpots and amplifier-climbing gymnastics. And fortunately for him, his passion for performing has outlasted the costumes and props. That burning itch for the stage is a prerequisite for any rock icon. And it causes me to gaze up at the old guy with more than a little reverence -- even if I do wish that he'd just cave in, perform all of his 1971 masterpiece, Every Picture Tells a Story, and forget the rest of his uneven catalog. Then again, watching Stewart pull off an acoustic-blues rendition of "Tonight I'm Yours" could have some comedic value.

Jamail vs. Texas?... Around the state, producer Randall Jamail is being raked over the coals by critics for Twisted Willie, a project he put together for his Justice Records. (And if you don't believe me, just turn to our review in Rotation this issue.) Willie is a collection of Willie Nelson covers from a selection of groups, most of them of the punk and grunge persuasion. And given the CD's concept, claims Jamail, he was prepared to take some heat from Texas. "I anticipated the response from Texas was going to be negative," he says. "Most Texas critics consider themselves the gatekeepers of music in this state. I don't begrudge anyone for listening to this record and saying that it's the wrong thing to do. But when writers react from an emotional standpoint, they're not holding up their end of the responsibility.

"I've learned that it's very hard to get respect in your home," he adds. Out of state -- in places such as Seattle, where Twisted Willie contributors L7 and Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil reside -- the press has been kinder to the project, which may be part of the reason Jamail says those out-of-state reviews are the ones he's most interested in.

While Jamail is all keyed up about Twisted Willie, he's also a little starry-eyed over a blossoming relationship with Willie's pal Waylon Jennings, who just signed with Justice for a three-CD deal. Recording for the first Jennings effort on Justice began last week in Nashville, with a release date set for April. And weirdly enough, Jamail says, Jennings has landed a slot on the upcoming Lollapalooza tour, thanks to this year's scheduled headliner, Metallica. Apparently, Metallica guitarist James Hetfield is a big Waylon fan.

Etc.... In an effort to purge themselves of the self-satisfied habits many Houston bands fall victim to, 30footFALL is peddling its thrash-punk wares throughout the West for the next few weeks. The guys piled into their newly juiced-up Ford Econoline Van last weekend for 28 days of gigs in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and California. "We're takin' our dough and getting lost," says lead singer Butch Klotz, advising other local groups to move off the couch and do the same. "It's hard to tour, but it's not so hard that you can't do it." Well said.

A few notables on the concert schedule this week: Friday, jazz saxophone has its night under the lights at Rockefeller's with Just the Sax, featuring acclaimed reed men George Howard, Walter Beasley, Gerald Albright and Everette Harp; and Sunday, lovable oddball Jonathan Richman returns to the Fabulous Satellite Lounge. -- Hobart Rowland

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Hobart Rowland