Thursday, 9 June 2016

Robert Plant brings retooled Zep hits to Molson Amphitheatre

It's been nearly eight years since Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page and singer Robert Plant performed together. And while Page has spent a large chunk of the interim restoring the iconic band's back catalogue, Plant continues to press forward on a seemingly endless musical adventure.

Such was the case Tuesday evening at Toronto's Molson Canadian Amphitheatre where Plant and his eclectic supporting cast the Sensational Space Shifters thrilled a sizable but far from capacity crowd for 100 minutes. The biggest difference this time around was how liberally Plant sprinkled the set with reworked, retooled Led Zeppelin classics.

Plant, 67, got things started off perfectly with Trampled Under Foot, the groovy boogie number from Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti. Happy to give fans what they wanted, the singer belted out the tune before offering up Turn It Up from his latest album Lullaby and...The Ceaseless Roar.

It was obvious though the ups and downs depended on where Plant was in the set. As interesting as new, Celtic-tinged tunes such as Little Maggie came off they didn't register as strongly with fans judging by how many kept sitting. This changed quickly whenever Plant unearthed gems such as the delectable foot-stomper Black Country Woman with the singer on harmonica or the swampy, re-imagined Black Dog.

Perhaps the greatest asset was his band, one that easily lived up to its name. A handful of times throughout, guitarists Justin Adams and Liam “Skin” Tyson followed Plant's blueprint perfectly, morphing from rustic Mississippi blues to rock to folk in the span of a few fleeting moments. This was particularly true on No Place to Go which veered seamlessly into a tasty portion of Dazed And Confused.

Another highlight was The Rain Song which slowed things down roughly halfway into the show. Here Plant, Tyson and keyboardist John Baggott created some magic that both Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones would probably deem worthy.

While professing his love of Toronto, Plant also gave a shout out to Jack White who Plant said was “giving some people some s—” and dedicated The Lemon Song to him. The reference regarded the verbal tussle White had earlier in the week with The Black Keys' Pat Carney.

Near the homestretch Plant and the seasoned sextet weaved through a medley of I Just Want to Make Love to You, Whole Lotta Love and Who Do You Love? The mash-up was loved by all as Plant waved his hands in the air, which the crowd quickly mimicked. This paled however to the encore which melded Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down with In My Time of Dying.

With the end in sight on this night, Plant put a pretty bow on the proceedings with Rock and Roll, the warhorse that had some Cajun flair to it courtesy of multi-instrumentalist Juldeh Camara.

Opening for Plant was Seattle garage rock group The Sonics. While dressed like they just left their insurance office, the '60s group brought to mind The Stooges and MC5 with their powerful, punchy brand of rock.

Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters at the Fillmore Auditorium, Denver

Robert Plant's new album, Lullaby and... The Ceaseless Roar (Nonesuch, 2014), is an atmospheric affair; music suitable for horseback riding at twilight in misty woods while on the lookout for the Headless Horseman. Perhaps the Led Zeppelin tune most closely matching the feel for many of the songs on the new album is "No Quarter." So it was entirely appropriate that Plant and his Sensational Space Shifters began their concert Saturday night with... "No Quarter." Plant and his band went on to perform five or six (or maybe even seven) more Zeppelin tunes, depending on how you count. More on that later. Most of the rest of the program was drawn from the new album.

Plant formed the Sensational Space Shifters in 2013 after his extended dalliances with Alison Krauss and, later, Patty Griffin whom he married. After about five or six years of harmonizing, he decided to get back to his roots and dig seriously into the blues. The Sensational Space Shifters were actually a reconstituted Strange Sensation, the band he put together for Mighty Rearranger (Sanctuary, 2005). The new band swapped out drummers with the old one and added an African multi-instrumentalist, Juldeh Camara, to further develop a world beat sound to augment the ever present blues. Lacking a new album, last year's Space Shifters tour featured plenty of reimagined Zeppelin tunes interspersed with a number of tunes from Mighty Rearranger. Now with a new album, the 2014 tour swapped out the Mighty Rearranger tunes for new ones.

But, as he has for many years now, Plant reworked a number of Zeppelin chestnuts. If it's possible, Saturday night's version of "No Quarter" was even spookier than the original. In contrast, "Ramble On" had a sunny, stroll-through-the-park feel; interrupted occasionally by violent hailstorms. Actually, that sun/storm contrast was a technique that Zeppelin used with some frequency and two other examples of that were on Saturday night's bill. "What Is and What Should Never Be," which, like "Ramble On" was originally on Led Zeppelin II (Atlantic, 1969) switched back and forth from the mellow to the manic, as did "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" from Led Zeppelin I (Atlantic, 1969). The upbeat sides of these tunes were the closest Plant's current band got to the trademark Zeppelin heaviness, with the possible exception of "Whole Lotta Love."

Led Zeppelin's primary influence in the early days was the blues. Saturday night's show drew heavily from that genre. After finishing "No Place to Go," Plant credited Howlin' Wolf with writing it. However, the song also formed the basis for Zeppelin's "How Many More Times," another one from the first album, with the lyrics declaring, "How many more times you gonna treat me like you do?" So does that count as a Zeppelin cover? Another blues cover Saturday night with Zeppelin overtones was "Fixin' to Die," a Bukka White composition. This one never appeared on a Zeppelin studio album, but in concert they often threw it into the middle of "Whole Lotta Love" along with other blues classics.

Speaking of "Whole Lotta Love" and blues classics, Saturday night's rendition of that hit from the second album featured gems like "She's 19 Years Old," "I Just Want to Make Love to You," "Who Do You Love?" and the main tune's inspiration, Willie Dixon's "You Need Love."

Many of the songs from the new album had more of a folk music feel (although Plant said everything he was playing was "folk music" which, in a sense, is true). The evening's closer, "Little Maggie" was a good example. Plant explained it was a tune from the Great Smokey Mountains, but it probably really came from England. Perhaps that view could be chalked up to his English heritage, but much of the music indigenous to Appalachia can be traced back to the UK. A Zeppelin classic that fit this mold, at least sonically, was "Going to California."

Much of Ceaseless Roar has a Celtic meets Africa vibe, but the blues are ever present, of course. One of the early selections Saturday night was "Poor Howard" from the new album. It's a song the album explains is derived from "Po' Howard," a Leadbelly tune. "Turn it Up" is one of the better tracks on the new album and it also appeared early Saturday night. Plant sang about driving around America on "Charley Patton highway" a reference to an early blues pioneer. He also bemoans that, "I'm stuck inside the radio/Turn it on and let me out!" A reference to the continuing popularity of Led Zeppelin on the radio, even all these years later?

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