“We’ve got a lot of music for you,” Robert Plant announced at the final date of his U.S. tour Saturday night (July 27) at the Prospect Park Bandshell in Brooklyn, New York. “We’re gonna whip out the REO Speedwagon, but right now we’re gonna go back to the 1920s!” Plant has a sly sense of humor, and isn’t afraid to bite the hand that feeds him — in this case classic rock radio, which has steadily played Led Zeppelin‘s music for decades. It was his way of saying, if you’re only familiar with him via radio stations who “Get The Led Out” before playing mainstays like REO (and, presumably, other radio-ready rock acts of the ’70s and ’80s that flourished on the format), you might be disappointed. However, those with adventurous tastes would be rewarded.
That made the choice of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Bandshell a clever one; had he played a venue like Nikon Jones Beach Theatre or the PNC Bank Arts Center — where classic rock acts tend to play greatest hits packed sets (and where Plant has played in the past) — his genre-defying show may not have gone over as well. But in Brooklyn, when Plant introduced his backing group the Sensational Shape Shifters, and noted what bands they had been in (including Massive Attack, Portishead, Cast, Beak and Juju), many of the fans in the audience had actually heard of those groups. And it seems that at this point in his career, he’d rather play to smaller crowds who are familiar with Massive Attack than to larger venues if that means playing the hits, just the way you remember them.
Which isn’t to say that Plant has a problem with his hits or his lineage. That was clear from the opener: “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You.” A folk song from the 1950s popularized by Joan Baez a decade later, Led Zeppelin turned it into a powerful anthemic adrenaline blast on their 1969 debut album, and it barely resembled the original. Plant’s message seemed to be: old music is a jump-off point to create something new, not to be preserved in its original form. It’s a living organism, not Madame Tussad’s. Four decades later, he seems to feel the same way about Zeppelin’s music. His reverence to his former band is to the spirit of what they did, not simply to Jimmy Page’s arrangements. And while “Babe” stuck fairly closely to Zep’s version, and the same was true of “Going To California,” other songs were taken to the present and beyond: notably “Black Dog,” which became a desert blues instead of the proto-metal headbanger that was released on Zeppelin’s fourth album. It’s a song he seems to particularly enjoy re-shaping: he did a more psychedelic version with his last group, the Band Of Joy (watch that version here) and a bluegrass version when he was touring with Alison Krauss (see it here). Watch his current take of the song below.
Zeppelin was one of the three main touchpoints of his setlist. As always, he has a huge reverence for the blues music that inspired him, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and the late John Bonham, along with so many other of his peers in the ’60s. The difference is that Plant still seems as excited by the blues as he ever was, and still as inspired by the possibilities hidden in the genre. So when he covers “Spoonful” or “Fixin’ To Die” (the 1920’s song referred to earlier), he doesn’t see them as museum pieces, he sees them as new canvas’ to paint on. Watch his interpretation on “Spoonful” below.
The other touchpoint was his 2005 solo album, Mighty ReArranger, which featured his backing band the Strange Sensation. That group has four players in common with the Sensational Shape Shifters: guitarist Justin Adams, keyboardist John Baggot, bassist Billy Fuller and guitarist Liam “Skin” Tyson (the Shape Shifters are rounded out by Juldeh Camara who sings, plays a one stringed African violin called the ritti, and an African banjo called the kologo, and drummer Dave Smith). That album, one of his most adventurous, was his last before his multi-GRAMMY winning collaboration with Krauss, which kicked off a few years of exploration into Americana. Now, Plant appears to be returning to a more global (and electronic) sound. He played “Tin Pan Valley,” “Another Tribe” and “The Enchanter” from that album. In “Tin Pan Valley,” a song that combines electronic sounds, a world music feel and thrashing guitars, he sings, “My peers may flirt with cabaret/some fake the rebel yell/Me, I’m moving up to higher ground/I must escape their hell.” That’s exciting news for fans who are still eager to see what Plant may still contribute.
For anyone else: “Zep-tember” is just a few weeks away.