Thursday, October 9, 2014

Concert/CD Review: Robert Plant

Robert Plant (photo: York Tillyer)
No one can ever accuse Robert Plant of resting on his laurels.

The former Led Zeppelin singer has steadfastedly ignored calls to re-reunite with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones after their successful 2007 London reunion show, preferring to concentrate on his own musical endeavors, which stretch from his first solo efforts, the superlative Pictures at Eleven (1982) and even better The Principle of Moments (1983)—still his most memorable post-Zep albums—to his new release, Lullaby...and the Ceaseless Roar, which has gotten some of the strongest notices of his career.

While I don't share the general enthusiasm for the new album—it's yet another Plant exercise in restless musical experimentation, but its ceaseless drone isn't a patch on his best  Zep and solo work—I have no complaints about how the new songs sounded when Plant brought his terrific band, the Sensational Space Shifters, to the Brooklyn Academy of Music Opera House recently for two shows that ended a month-long tribute to Nonesuch Records, home of musical innovators from John Adams and the Kronos Quartet to Natalie Merchant and now Plant himself.

The Lullaby songs generated a cumulative power lacking in the studio versions, from the evening's second song "Poor Howard" to the lone encore, "Little Maggie." Especially effective were a raving "Turn It Up," which sounds like a poor cousin to Zeppelin bombast on record but flared to blistering life onstage, along with "A Stolen Kiss," whose quiet strength came across far more persuasively live. Plant's voice, long ago losing its wail and roar that was as much a Zeppelin trademark as Page's guitar or John Bonham's drumming, found a comfortable middle register that snugly fits the new songs.

That said, it's too bad Plant didn't play more solo material: I would have loved to hear him and his band on classics like "Sixes and Sevens," "Big Log" or "Pledge Pin," for starters. Instead, aside from scintillating blues covers "Fixin' to Die" and "No Place to Go," the rest of the 95-minute show comprised songs from Plant's old band. 

Surprising to this long-time Plant observer—I've seen him in concert seven times since his first solo tour in 1983—was that his versions of Zep songs were unusually faithful to the originals, from the brooding opener, "No Quarter," and the folksy "Going to California" (about which he quipped after singing it, "pretty profound stuff, huh?") to the psychedelia of "What Is and What Should Never Be" (after which he jokingly railed, "that song's not about fuckin' hobbits!") and the primal blast of "Whole Lotta Love," the main set's closer.

My initial post-show thought: so why doesn't he play these legendary songs with the guys with which he wrote and recorded them, since he's obviously proud of how they still stand up decades later? The answer: playing the 2500-seat BAM Opera House is one thing, but touring with a reformed Led Zeppelin would force him to sing in big hockey arenas or massive football stadiums. Which is about as far from where Robert Plant is in his element these days. 

Robert Plant's U.S. tour ends October 9 in Brooklyn, NY.
New album Lullaby..and the Ceaseless Roar (Nonesuch Records) is out now.

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