Robert Plant Revisits Led Zeppelin And Examines The Blues Tradition On Father’s Day In Chicago
By Jim Ryan
As the lead singer of Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant sold nearly 300 million records worldwide during a recording career that stretched from 1969 to 1982, making the group one of the best-selling in the history of recorded music.
But it’s his desire to push the music forward at all times that has defined his solo career. Plant rarely looks back. And when he does it’s strictly on his own terms.
At only 69 years of age, he’s a bit younger than some of his contemporaries. For the sake of comparison, Paul McCartney turned 76 today, while Daryl Hall, Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler and Sammy Hagar are all 70. That’s right – the lead singer of Led Zeppelin is younger than the singer of Hall & Oates.
One of the great frontmen in rock and roll history, Plant commands the stage with a youthful exuberance, twirling the mic stand and working the crowd into a frenzy during a set that revisits Led Zeppelin while shining a light on his vastly underrated solo catalog.
On stage at Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park yesterday, temperatures climbed to nearly 100 degrees on a humid Father’s Day outdoors in Chicago. But Plant remained in stunning voice throughout.
“Now come on, Chicago! Let’s go!” he said midway through “Four Sticks” second in the set. From 1971’s Led Zeppelin IV album, Sunday night marked the first time Plant has dusted off the Zeppelin track so far on this tour.
Not only did he premiere “Four Sticks,” he actually opened the show with three straight Led Zeppelin classics. “The Lemon Song” (complete with closing scream) and “What Is and What Should Never Be” bookended the premiere.
The frontman teased the crowd with a reference to Zeppelin’s “Misty Mountain Hop,” before launching into “What Is and What Should Never Be” instead. “Suckers!” he joked as the crowd began to catch on to the ruse.
“What do you think about Mexico today? Slapped those Germans around the back of the head!” he exclaimed excitedly in response to the stunning soccer upset which had unfolded earlier in the day on the World Cup pitch. The “Golden God” was in affable spirits throughout.
Over the course of ninety minutes in Chicago, Plant and his six-piece backing band, the Sensational Space Shifters, put a surprising emphasis on the Zeppelin canon, adding their unique spin to eight tracks Zeppelin put to tape, plus one more that exists primarily amongst the bootleg community (Bukka White’s “Fixin’ to Die”). The full set consisted of 13 songs, only two of which – “The May Queen” and “Carry Fire” – came from his latest studio album, October’s Carry Fire (his eleventh).
In addition to his role as band frontman, Plant seemed to take equal pride in his role as de facto emcee. His storytelling on stage Sunday night was particularly sublime.
“Just south of Memphis on Highway 61 was a town called Tunica, Mississippi,” he explained in his intro to the 2014 solo track “Turn it Up.” “It was the home to so many people who came to Chicago in the 30s, 40s and 50s and brought the music to us all,” he continued, adding a local connection to the story, referencing the origins of Chicago blues that were of particular influence on Led Zeppelin.
“Just a little further south from Tunica across the river to Shreveport, Louisiana…” said Plant, picking the story back up a few songs later and establishing a breathtaking rendition of “Gallows Pole. “His name was Lead Belly and this was one of his songs.”
Plant’s fascinating story of the blues tradition made the connection between his Zeppelin output and his solo catalog through a pair of songs released nearly forty-five years apart.
Led Zeppelin recorded their version of “Gallows Pole” for release in 1970 on Led Zeppelin III. On album, the track is powered by a bevy of acoustic and electric guitar. Sunday night, however, it more closely resembled a blues based, fiddle-fueled hootenanny driven as much by live violin.
The best example though of Plant’s ability to put a contemporary spin on a familiar tune was in his live handling of “In the Mood.” From his second solo album The Principle of Moments in 1983, the cut is one of his most well-known solo tracks. But on-stage Sunday night, keyboards and violin drove the performance in front of a drumbeat that lent it a shuffle, rendering it nearly unrecognizable but no less satisfying.
In terms of the Led Zeppelin material tackled, it was the softer moments that revealed the true power of Plant’s still remarkably strong voice. He’s notorious for the care he takes of his instrument and it was most obvious during “Going to California” and “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You.”
While the trademark scream unleashed at the climax of the latter would be impressive from a vocalist half his age, it was the pure delight he took in uttering lines like, “Someone told me there’s a girl out there / With love in her eyes and flowers in her hair,” that was palpable during the former.
But while the show’s more tender moments may have belied Plant’s vocal strength, it was the more rocking moments that seemed to resonate most with the crowd.
Space Shifters guitarists Justin Adams and Liam “Skin” Tyson team up on guitar to offer their interpretation of many a well-known song and Jimmy Page guitar part.
Sunday’s set closed with a spirited, amped up take on a medley which weaved seamlessly between “Bring it on Home” and “Whole Lotta Love.” The latter, in particular, stayed surprisingly close to the Zeppelin original. It speaks volumes on Plant’s catalog that one of the most rocking songs in the history of rock music didn’t even necessarily seem like the obvious, hands down choice as show closer.
In a solo career where Robert Plant has consistently tried new things, nostalgia be damned – and seldom failed – there’s inspiration to be taken in his steadfast refusal to reform what’s left of Led Zeppelin merely to make the quick buck. Things are far more interesting when he follows his muse wherever it leads.