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Robert Plant returns, carrying fire

 By Patrick O’Boyle 

February 12, 2018

Waiting in line outside of Ovens Auditorium, fumes hit me like a wall. It might be Independence Boulevard, but it could be all these Zeppelin fans in line with me to see Robert Plant, who smell like air freshener and cigarette smoke. This group leans toward the wildcard/burn-out end of the Boomer/Generation X spectrum. Walking inside I see an oxygen tank, some canes, even a hoveround, and the first conversations I overhear are about Type 2 Diabetes and Hep A. These fans are amped and devoted, but they’ve seen better days.

Robert Plant, on the other hand, appears to be immortal. A few bars into the opening number (a rainy, new-wave-ish rock song called “New World…”), he bounces out on to the stage wearing a cobalt blue silk shirt and black pants, lithe and limber. Gripping the mic in his hunched, familiar way, he emotes every lyric and hits every note. He picks up the mic stand like a spear. He crouches and prowls. He dances out each beat fluidly and tirelessly. He’s got it.

Robert Plant photo by Amber Smith

It’s a bit of a ballsy move to open with “New World…”, a stab at the political zeitgeist, satirizing American hypocrisy, violence and xenophobia. Then again, that’s what you’d expect from a rock survivor who’s carved out a middle ground between indulging his fans and evolving in his own direction.

“It’s great to be back in this town again,” he said to a sold-out Ovens Auditorium. “I’m convinced I’ve been here before.” He’s not the only one. “We’re gonna be playing you some amazing cornerstones of contemporary music. Or… How about some stuff from our new record?” To their credit the crowd is just as stoked to hear the new stuff, and Plant introduces the opening track, “The May Queen.”

Robert Plant photo by Amber Smith

When Plant released lullaby…And the Ceaseless Roar in 2014, critics cast it as his potential swan song. In Fall 2017, he returned with an album that arguably outdid the last one: Carry Fire. In another collaboration with the Sensational Space Shifters, Plant continues to wander in a forest of folk and world music reveries. Carry Fire is rich, warm-toned and mysterious, moving at a sauntering and intoxicating pace.

Both the album and the show work well on two counts: 1) Plant’s voice remains the same; he shifts seamlessly from his airy crooning to his trademark soul-wail—granted he wails less than he used to. 2) The undeniable excellence of his band, a five-piece of seasoned collaborators from England. They’re joined by the young violinist Seth Lakeman, who opened the night with his solo material. The songs are expansive, layered and take their time. Plant appears, sings something esoteric, then steps back and gives ample space for all instrumentation to shine.

Violinist Seth Lakeman photo by Amber Smith

Needless to say, it’s a night of mind-blowing guitar solos. Justin Adams and Liam “Skin” Tyson shred everything from hollow-bodies to telecasters to banjos to mandolins. A highlight is Adams’ weird 12-string, fretless guitar that sounds just like an oud but… is a guitar? I really don’t know. This is during “Carry Fire,” the title track, when Adams steals the show with thrilling riffs that evoke the ecstasies of Sufi music. Adams has been influenced by this kind of sound since his childhood years in the Middle East. He’s produced two albums for Tuareg rockers Tinariwen. These are the kind of collaborators whose ideas Plant prods and nourishes, arriving at something that’s not just his.

After a volley of newer songs, a seated Tyson takes an acoustic, Adams a mandolin, and together they strum the “That’s The Way.” There’s an instant murmur of recognition that builds to a prolonged roar. It’s an amazing experience to see Robert Plant sing classic songs he wrote, in the flesh, and so impeccably well. You can feel the nostalgia in the room.

Photo by Amber Smith

To me, the crowd seems super engaged, as much as could be expected. It’s not until one of Plant’s songs from the 2000s, which kind of falls flat, that everyone takes a seat for the first time in half an hour. He brings up some lights and addresses his fans a bit coolly, like he’s slightly underwhelmed. Maybe it’s just English nonchalance.

The band restores the energy with an amped-up version of “Please Read The Letter” from Plant’s collaboration with Allison Krauss. That’s followed by a spectacular cover of Ledbelly’s “Gallis Pole” that gets people falling out of their seats. “Baby I’m Gonna Leave You” provides the long epic Zeppelin centerpiece the fans go crazy for.  

Photo by Amber Smith

The set draws from many different sources, heavy on new material and jamming. It feels like a misfire when they close with a less-recognizable song. As the band exits and the audience applauds, an inquisitive Plant gauges our level of satisfaction with the wobbly-flat-hand gesture of uncertainty. He says a rushed goodnight and hurries off stage, but it’s a bluff. The band returns a few minutes later for a spectacular salvo of “In The Mood” and “Whole Lotta Love,” which feels more like powerhouse finale than an encore. At 70 years old, Robert Plant is still challenging himself to keep up with the times, and challenging his audience to keep up with him.

Check out the remaining 2018 tour dates for Robert Plant.

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