*Photo from the internet, credited to The Telegraph and likely copyrighted
“Kansas City, here I come…” Robert Plant, September 10, 2018
The Rock Chick and I had been on the road for a little R & R the last four or five days. We’d been barnstorming around Florida, partying like escaped, pirate convicts. I knew we’d be exhausted by the time we got home on Monday, September 10th, but when I saw Robert Plant was coming in concert at the beautiful, historic Midland Theater, I knew we’d have to suck it up. After a brief but – and I don’t say this word often – lovely opening set from violinist/singer/multi-instrumentalist Seth Lakeman, who joined the Space Shifters for their set, we were all anxiously awaiting the man himself, Robert Plant.
I hadn’t seen Plant solo since the tour in support of Dreamland. I did see him with Alison Krauss when they toured together and it was fabulous. I can’t believe it’d been almost 10 years since I’d seen him. When the lights came down, and the band walked on stage, Plant, looking fit and dressed all in black, hung back in the shadows, near the drum riser. He danced around the stage like a prize fighter before the championship match… I couldn’t take my eyes off of him…with his long hair and full beard he looks like a grizzled lion. The band launched into the opening track, “New World…” from their great album, last year’s Carry Fire LP Review: Robert Plant, The Sensational ‘Carry Fire’ and Plant stepped to the microphone… and he unleashed…the voice. Wow, can he still sing. In the back of my mind I always wondered if he wasn’t getting back with Led Zeppelin because he wouldn’t be able to hit those notes. I was terribly wrong about that. I mean, sure, it’d probably be hard for him to do “The Immigrant Song” at top banshee wail every night (who could?), but his voice is as strong as ever. He could go from a whisper to a Viking wail in one breath. On stage Plant’s charisma is palpable. Not just the voice, the looks on his face, the dancing, the hand gestures, it’s all amazing. He’s truly still one of the best front men, ever. And from all appearances last night, he’s having a blast.
When I see an artist like Plant it gets me thinking. I don’t think rock and roll was ever originally conceived with longevity in mind. When it came along in the middle 50s, built on post-war teen rebellion, I think people thought it was just a fad, and it’d fade away. No one ever imagined that a man who just turned 70 could walk out on stage and still captivate an audience. But therein lies the horns of the dilemma for Plant – how does someone like him balance past glories with the adventure of new creativity. How do you blend your past with your present without being trapped by it. And lets face it, Plant’s past, namely Led Zeppelin, casts a big shadow. I thought Plant and the Space Shifters – Justin Adams and Skin Tyson on guitars, Dave Smith on drums, Seth Lakeman on violin, Billy Fuller on drums, and John Baggott on keyboards – do a great job of blending the old with the new. Plant spends half his set playing Zeppelin tunes, and half on his solo career.
Plant and the band seem to shift back forth, past to present, seamlessly but there are moments where I fear the crowd doesn’t quite make that jump. When Plant would try to speak before songs, like when introducing “Gallows Pole,” which was sped up last night and played like a psychedelic hoe-down, he was explaining it was a Leadbelly song… Some idiot screamed, “We love you Robert!” To his credit, Plant gave a somewhat exhausted, “Yeah, yeah, I know.” During one of the most beautifully sung moments of the night, the band had gone quiet and Plant was softly singing a passage of “Please Read the Letter” (a Page-Plant track that he’d redone with Alison Krauss and he described as a song being written by two “up and coming songwriters,” in his funniest line), some crazy, fucking idiot chick in front of me, screams, “You’re incredible” at the top of her lungs… ruining the moment in the song. The look on Plant’s face was telling… mild frustration, surprise, and a long way from pleased. It’s not 1972, honey. Sober up and let the man sing a ballad. Despite all that, Plant remained charming the entire night. His between song anecdotes were always enjoyable.
At this stage in his career, it’d be easy for Plant to reunite with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones and travel the world singing songs from the seventies. It’s obvious to me that Plant doesn’t care about that fame and fortune thing any more. For him, it appears, the joy is in the discovery and exploration of the roots of all music. He blends folk, rock and roll, Middle-eastern and African rhythms into one big, new whole in his latest music. That’s why I love it. He sees the commonality of a Celtic folk song and something that springs from the Appalachians to something that’s from the bazaars of Morocco. He’s searching and in that search he’s creating some of the most interesting music of his career. The fact that he can deliver that AND old Zeppelin classics over the course of one evening is mind blowing.
As I mentioned, they opened up with “New World…” and carried on playing new tracks, the rocking “Turn It Up” from lullaby…And The Ceaseless Roar proved the night was not going to be a mellow affair. “The May Queen” his first single from Carry Fire was next and it was spot on. One has to give a special shout out to Adams and Tyson on guitars. They go from acoustic to blasting electric as effortlessly as Plant goes from quiet to loud. By song four, Plant had dug into the Zeppelin catalog when they launched into “Black Dog.” What I loved about it, the band and Plant played it perfectly, down to the call and response vocals, until the end where they stretched it out and jammed a little bit more in the style of Carry Fire than Led Zeppelin IV and then brought it right back to sounding like Zeppelin. It was like watching musical gymnastics. I will admit, the band did tend after that to stretch most songs out toward the end and I get it, when a band is grooving they like to jam, but if they’d cut a few of those jams short, they could have fit a few more songs in… I saw in Europe they were opening with “When the Levee Breaks” and were also doing “Rainbow” and I would have enjoyed hearing one or both of those versus the jams, but I’m splitting hairs.
After “Black Dog,” Tyson and Adams huddled on the side of the stage with an acoustic guitar and mandolin, respectively… Plant sang “Going to California” in what was perhaps the most beautiful moment of the night. I don’t mind admitting, I got goose bumps and tears welled in my eyes. I have no idea why I reacted that strongly, the performance just moved me. After that they played the Rock Chick’s favorite “Please Read the Letter” which was only marred by the aforementioned drunk idiot, and then the sped up “Gallows Pole.” It was then that Plant played “Carry Fire” the beautiful, Middle-Eastern flavored title track from his last album. I don’t know how Justin Adams was able to make the sounds he was making – it looked like he was playing a 12-string dobro, but I’m not a instrument genius. It was a real highlight for me.
The moment that brought the house down was the next track, from all the way back on Led Zeppelin I, “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.” Skin Tyson sat down and played a beautiful acoustic solo intro that eventually led into the song. It was musically gorgeous. The band muscled into the electric portion of the track and the crowd, including me, went wild. After the exotic “Little Maggie” the band played an old Bukka White song, “Funny In My Mind, (I Think I’m Fixin’ To Die)” from Dreamland. While I love the song, they sped it up and played it almost in a Johnny Cash train-song style that lost me a bit. It went on for a long time.
The encore was a complete surprise and delight when they came out and played “In The Mood” from 1982. Plant typically eschews music from his first few albums so I was delighted they played one of the Rock Chick’s favs at the show. It was played more in the Plant-Krauss style, all natural instruments, piano/violin/great vocals, than the original synth version. It was smile-inducing pleasure. With that, it was time for the big jam – “Bring It On Home” which led to “Whole Lotta Love.” There was a weird interlude where they sang some song about heading down to the Gulf of Mexico… and then it was back to “Whole Lotta Love.” The crowd, who had been ready to release their Zeppelin mania in a guitar frenzy orgasm, seemed satisfied at last.
We were spent, but the Rock Chick looked up at me and said, “I’m tired, but that was awesome…” Plant waved to the crowd and said, “Remember what you heard tonight… see you next time, at least I hope so….” And right before left, he turned back and quoting the same song he’d quoted at the beginning of the night said, “Kansas City, here I go…” And with that the Legend, Robert Plant and his band left the stage.
I say this all the time, buy the ticket, see the show, folks. It was an enthralling evening of rock and roll. These artists are treasures and they ain’t gonna be around forever. I believe Plant when he says, “I carry fire for you, here in my naked hand…” He’s carrying the fire of rock and roll.