Robert Plant And The Shape Shifters At the Beacon Theatre, Wednesday, Friday, February 14th, 2018, reviewed
Back in the 80s I had a close friend DJ named Disco Dee who always added Led Zeppelin to his Mayfield, Moroder, and Sugarhill. I considered it sacrilege, punk was about wiping out the Zeps of the world, why was he letting them back in? He said “Groove, man. They have a groove.” Thirty-five years later, if he had made it to Robert Plant and his Shape Shifters “Carry Fire” gig last night at the Beacon Theatre, I’d have abjectly apologized for doubting him. Rock God Robert Plant, the lead singer, brought a band that knew a lot about riding drums and using them as a pathway to modern school world music and US blues, and more, and reminded us that, appearances not withstanding, “Whole Lotta Love” was more than the riff, it was the swirl of drums right beneath it. It is why Zep couldn’t regroup after Jon died the way, say, the Who did after Keith Moon went.
Early Led Zep were just dirty, nasty, cod piece wearing, groupie abusing, Satanic ritualizing Stones wannabes (in my books), who needed the clean tasting spiked speed of 1977 punk to wash em down the drain of history where their plagiarists ill gotten gains could be served to pay for Chicago blues greats retirement homes. Both Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page were defined as post WW2 lower middle school new art school kids, who held onto the British explosion with all their might, but while Jagger Richard crafted Willie Dixon by name. Zep’s best song was similar to their first three years: “Whole Lotta Love” was a reworking of Muddy Waters singing on an Earl Hooker instrumental with Willie Dixon lyrics:
“You’ve got yearnin’ and I got burnin’
Baby you look so ho sweet and cunnin’
Baby way down inside, woman you need love
Woman you need love, you’ve got to have some love
I’m gon’ give you some love, I know you need love”
But, time wounds all heels and after Bonham, and punk, passed on, I went back to the original Zep albums and was amazed how my prejudices had affected my ears. Even so, Robert Plant went on to release eleven solo albums and I know two well, fortunately I was with partner in crime and Zep fanatic Tomas Doncker, though knowledge of the material was virtually secondary as Plant and the band performed one of the great “Fixin’ To Die,” as well as a sublime Hanni El Khatib would approve “Carry Fire,” traditional songs “Gallow Pole” (Led Zep used to do that one) and a brain dripping “Little Maggie”.
Robert Plant is in very good health, he looks fit, he slithers on his hips and rubs up against his microphone, when his excellent band takes over he steps back, and, like the rest of us, is mesmerized by fiddler Seth Lakeman. Plant has garnered a reputation for being a team player and one of the boys and he comes across as a fan as well as a sign of musical alchemy. In 105 minutes, the band follows so many trails, after so many different sounds, but they remain singularly the same throughout. Bassist Billy Fuller, guitarist Justin Adams and Massive Attack/Portishead keyboard player John Baggott, all shine, all are capable enough of everything from Aoud sounding parts to blues grafted twelve bars, they come together with a fundamental two-step, not only first-rate musicians, but all from Bristol.
I wasn’t crazy about encore “Whole Lotta Love” but everything else was a musicologists joy, Doncker, who has more than just listened to in World Music over the years (try his Ethiopian soul music), was enthralled by the way the sounds merged together, the way Plant went from folk to folk plus, the way his band could channel Zep but then move sideways. Obviously, this is a road that Plant has been on for a very long time, as Doncker put it: from Clarksdale to Morocco, and it is one where his controlled intensity flies powerfully towards you. Plant is still Plant, he moves the same, he sings as well (though he doesn’t go full Plant falsetto on us -at 70 years old who can blame him), but his sexual charisma remains intact. A terrific performer who refused the line of resistance nostalgia circuit to follow his musical muse in a natural direction through his entire life.
When compared to his closest contemporaries, say David Gilmore, he has managed to be the biggest low key figure in rock, a classicist scoping the width and breadth of sound but playing theatres, with a small strong band, and very little stage effects, allowing his voice to lead the way, as he moves and grooves with vigor.