(Robert) Plant Life
Self-effacing about his “masterful combination of soft rock and REO Speedwagon,” Robert Plant also failed to update his 40-year-old stage moves last night at a sold-out Moody Theater. Yet, joke as he did upon his Americana conversion, the Led Zeppelin frontman continues to age with grace and wit into the unwieldy assignation of rock & roll deity.
Staying well within the parameters of his solo sets from the last decade, the 64-year-old singer offered no-frill thrills that steadfastly wrestled and recast the mythos of his legendary English quartet, the most influential foursome in the history of popular music after ye olde Beatles. Opening with “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” from Zeppelin’s eponymous 1969 debut, the still lion-maned and nattily Van Dyke-d graying god and his backing fivepiece held true to the tune’s gnarly roots as an early-Sixties Joan Baez folk broil.
Not nearly as explosive as his onetime Strange Sensation crew, with whom Plant blew out an Austin City Limits taping in the PBS staple’s original nightclub-sized studio – for 2002 LP Dreamland, which began its maker’s transition back to early-20th century American roots music – Sunday’s Sensational Space Shifters struggled early on in the long, pitch black shadows of the headliner’s Hall of Fame calling card. It being the new band’s third show on a 21-date North American trek rationalizes most sound and cohesion issues, but Plant’s always equal to his collaborators, whether Jimmy Page at the Erwin Center in 1995, Alison Krauss and the Buddy Miller-led Raising Sand band at the ACL Music Fest in 2008, or his revamped Band of Joy at Stubb’s in 2010.
The Space Shifters have much to live up to in 2013, and after a serene “In the Mood” did so by moving into the earthshaking electroclash of “Tin Pan Alley” from 2005 Dreamland follow-up Mighty ReArranger. That and a thunderous “The Enchanter” from the same disc shook with a more naturalistic wallop than closer “Whole Lotta Love” and second and final encore “Rock and Roll.” (“This song goes back hundreds and hundreds of years,” winked Plant before the latter. “In fact, I remember when it was written....”)
Then again, trending organic past even the West African accents of Plant’s long revamped “Black Dog,” featuring Gambian griot fiddler Juldeh Camara, were the simple flourishes of mandolin on “Going to California” and the straight acoustic interpretations of Led Zeppelin III folkers “Friends” and “Bron Y Aur Stomp.” When the Space Shifters went blues on a sensuous, not-at-all “mutilated” cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Spoonful” and Dreamland’s Bukka White re-write “Funny in My Mind (I Believe I’m Fixin’ to Die),” they synced perfectly to the noir county amble of first encore “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” from their employer’s third and most recent new millennial roots morph, 2010’s Band of Joy.
The singer seemed to hint at Band of Joy alum and Austin’s beloved American Kid Patty Griffin joining him for “Please Read the Letter,” a Page/Plant co-write from their Walking into Clarksdale reunion, but the no-show by his local housemate – whom I missed in Santa Cruz by a day this past weekend – didn’t lessen the homecoming adoration of the performance.
“It’s not like this in Fiesta [Mart],” laughed Plant at the rapturous reception of the main set, which bookended his initial welcome. “The Austin experience isn’t something I thought I’d be having at this point in my life. I really love it here.”