The musically adventurous Plant shows he is not afraid to revisit the past as long as he has something new to add to the conversation.
Music, Published on Wed Oct 01 2014
At Massey Hall, Sept. 30
If mother is the necessity of invention, Robert Plant is its charming uncle you never really tire of visiting.
The former Led Zeppelin frontman has never been one to rest on his laurels for nostalgia’s sake — as those who have been waiting patiently and infinitely for a reunion of his most notable band’s survivors will frustratingly attest.
He has been musically adventurous since going solo back in 1982, as documented by his side trips ranging from the Honeydrippers to Raising Sand, his Grammy-winning album of Americana duets with bluegrass songbird Alison Krauss.
But as he’s proven with No Quarter, his 1994 reunion with Zep guitarist Jimmy Page and their subsequent tour with an Egyptian music ensemble, Plant is not afraid to revisit the past as long as he has something new to add to the conversation.
That general rule remained in effect for Tuesday night’s appearance at a sold-out Massey Hall, although Led Zeppelin diehards were aptly rewarded with a set list divvied up between reworked classics, a generous sampling of Plant’s fine new album Lullaby and . . . the Ceaseless Roar and a few blues gems plucked from the catalogues of Howlin’ Wolf and Bukka White.
After Plant, still unnaturally gifted with a full head of golden grey-sprinkled curly locks at age 66, slowly sauntered up to the microphone for an understated delivery of “No Quarter,” his six-piece backup the Sensational Space Shifters — who were “sensational” in every musical sense of the word — broke out the exotic instruments for “Poor Howard.”
Gambian musician Juldeh Camara bowed the ritti, a single-string violin that sounded more Celtic than African; guitarist Justin Adams strummed the tehardent, an African guitar, and Liam Tyson began plucking the “dreaded” banjo, as Plant described it, for a bluesy shuffle that sported an exotic polyrhythmic twist, while the singer stood there, tambourine in hand and a smile on his face, as the grooves continued to percolate.
Then it was back to the acoustic-driven “Thank You,” which brought the fans, a mix of young and old, to their feet, fuelled by the stellar guitar work of lead beard Tyson and enhanced by Plant’s reworked phrasing.
One thing is for certain: Plant is aging gracefully as a singer. Whether by design or due to dwindling capability, he rarely stretches into the higher register: the bridge of “Going To California” was delivered a full octave below the original arrangement and for “Whole Lotta Love,” cleverly wrapped into a medley that included “Who Do You Love,” he picked his spots, sometimes using staccato bursts of singing rather than sustaining the note to its natural conclusion.
It’s the mark of a proud man who knows his limitations but executes them tastefully without sinking into self-parody, and a strong indicator of why there will probably never be a Led Zeppelin reunion, due to Plant’s own lofty standards.
Those standards were met time and again throughout the 95-minute set, occasionally delving into full-fledged rock, as he did with parts of “What Is and What Should Never Be,” and a standout version of “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,” or emphasizing the funkiness of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” with a Bo Diddley blues beat, or having his band pull out the bendirs — large, tambourine-shaped African drums — for a rhythmically charged “Rainbow” off the new album, a song Plant ensured “was racing up the charts past Gary Puckett & The Union Gap” and past “Burton Cummings and other ballads of the past five years.”
If there was a disappointing aspect to Plant’s performance, it was the weird set-up of dual lighting rigs at the front of the stage that seriously blocked the vantage points of those nestled in the front corners of the Massey Hall floor seats: it’s obstructive enough and seemed to add so little to the proceedings that the singer should reconsider its positioning when he plays similar venues moving forward.
Aurally, however, the show was stunning: offering energy, vitality, bursts of power and a pretty amazing band (rounding out the Sensational Space Shifters were keyboardist John Baggott, bassist Billy Fuller and drummer Dave Smith) that brought the crowd repeatedly to their feet.
By the time he wrapped with a buoyant “Little Maggie,” Plant’s performance had veered between the hypnotic and the mesmeric, satisfying the sentimentally nostalgic without pandering to the past.
Robert Plant likes to keep us guessing and the hope is that he will continue do so well into the future.