Sunday, October 05, 2014

Whole Lotta Love...and then Some for Robert Plant as He Blisters the Riv with Past, Present Glories -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Robert Plant 
and the Sensational Space Shifters
w/ opening act The Last Internationale
Riviera Theatre, Chicago
October 2, 2014

You know what makes me happy?

Well sure, great friends, righteous music and Led freakin' Zeppelin, all of which will factor into this review.

But one thing that always makes me really happy is seeing people who love what they do.

And who, in the process, bring joy to others--and seemingly themselves--for reasons far more holistic than materialistic.

Without pretending to know his exact reasoning, in seeing Robert Plant at Chicago's Riviera Theatre on Thursday night, I felt like I completely understood--and admired--why he has resisted much clamoring for a Led Zeppelin reunion tour, including from Jimmy Page himself (who along with John Paul Jones and Jason Bonham--son of drummer John Bonham, who's 1980 death ended the band's initial glorious run--has seemingly been ready to go since 2007).

Led Zeppelin, arguably the biggest band of the 1970s, has over-the-years had occasional one-off reunions of the three original members, the most recent in 2007 at London's O2 arena with Jason Bonham on drums.

As documented in the marvelous Celebration Day DVD and CD, the band was still a phenomenal live
act and, according Guinness World Records, the show generated the "Highest Demand for Tickets for One Music Concert."

Supposedly, 20 million ticket requests were submitted online for the approximately 20,000 available.

So it isn't just hardcore fandom hyperbole that suggests a Led Zeppelin reunion tour would be the highest grossing ever, likely generating over $1 billion if enough dates were booked.

But Plant has rebuffed all entreaties, and now touring with a musically and ethnically diverse band dubbed the Sensational Space Shifters, rather than selling out, say, 6 nights at Soldier Field with Led Zeppelin, on Thursday night he played the 2,500-capacity Riviera Theatre.

The show wound up being a sellout, but I was able to get tickets for me and my friend Paolo long after they initially went on sale.

But not only in his stage demeanor did Robert Plant not seem the least concerned about the millions he had foregone, he struck me as all the more blissful and contented for it.

Obviously set for life monetarily and still receiving plenty of adulation--as bestowed here by a crowd that, as several fans remarked upon, was demonstrably old--the man who became a rock 'n roll archetype at the age of 20 and is oft-regarded as the greatest lead singer in rock history just seems incredibly comfortable in his own skin at 66.

No, he can't wail away on the high notes as he did in 1971, but whatever his still supple and emblematic voice has lost in register is largely made up for by a richer depth and more inventive phrasing.

After a fine set by a New York-based band called the Last Internationale--notable for pretty, powerful singer Delila Paz, former Rage Against the Machine member Brad Wilk on drums and a strong political bent--Plant let the Sensational Space Shifters take the stage briefly before he ambled to the mic.

"Close the door, put out the light / 
You know they won't be home tonight"

With the opening of the 1973 Zeppelin classic, "No Quarter," it was clear we were in for a magical evening.

And a euphoric one, that included from me an obnoxious amount of air drumming, guitar playing and more random spasms.

Though I have seen Plant six previous times--including twice on late '90s tours with Page--and have heard him sing most of the Zeppelin stalwarts, there was something both holy and orgasmic about witnessing him deliver spectacular renditions of "Ramble On," "Going to California," "What Is and What Should Never Be," "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You" and "Whole Lotta Love."

Given the diverse musicality with which Plant has long surrounded himself, and how stellar the true-to-their-name Senational Space Shifters were--members include West African musician Juldeh Camara, guitarists Skin Tyson and Justin Adams, drummer Dave Smith, keyboardist John Baggott and bassist Billy Fuller--it was hard to imagine the actual Zeppelin, now, sounding any more pleasing.

Not that I wouldn't be there in a heartbeat.

But "there" would undoubtedly be in the back rows of a stadium or at least an arena, while even in the balcony of the Riviera I was far closer to one of the greatest of rock legends than I should have been.

Making the acoustics, and the experience, all the more special.

But to focus simply on the Zeppelin material--a folksy encore version of "Nobody's Fault but Mine" rounded it out--would be a disservice to Plant and the choices and music he has made since then.

His latest album, Lullaby and...the Ceaseless Roar is excellent in a lower-key way, and it was truly a delight to hear several of its songs--"Poor Howard," "Rainbow," "Turn It Up," "Arbaden (Maggie's Baby)," "A Stolen Kiss" and the show-closing "Little Maggie"--complement the Zeppelin treasures and a few blues covers. (See the setlist for Robert Plant at the Riviera in Chicago here.)

As I noted to Paolo, in the context of quintessential classic rock singers and wunderkind musical genius guitarists, it's easy to think that--historically--Plant is to Page as The Who's Roger Daltrey is to Pete Townshend.

But with no disrespect meant to Daltrey, in Zeppelin Plant was far much more of a songwriting collaborator, and after the band's demise, Robert--unlike Roger--has had a rather distinguished solo career.

I can't say I acutely missed anything amidst a show that will rank among the best concerts of my year--and the one that likely fostered my most exuberant exhilaration in quite some time--but beyond the Zep classics and fine new tunes, it's almost a shame past solo gems like "Tall Cool One," "29 Palms," "Other Arms," "In the Mood" and "All the King's Horses" couldn't also illustrate how Plant has stood the test of time while constantly moving forward. (Check out my Solo Plant Spotify playlist.)

I think I've rambled on enough, and there's no way I can adequately convey how it felt to hear the "Dunnunt, dunnunt, de, dunt, dunt" mid-song guitar riff of "What Is and What Should Never Be" smacking me in the face or the epochal denouement of "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You" blissfully blowing my head off.

But rock 'n roll--and life--doesn't get much better. Or, for me, more religious.

To quote Paolo in stealing back a word far too co-opted for superfluous mediocrity...

"It was epic." 

And in keeping with where I started, if Plant had decided to close the 90-minute show with "When the Levee Breaks" (given its "going to Chicago" refrain) or, as he did at a Taste of Chicago I heard but didn't attend last summer, my all-time favorite Zeppelin song, "Rock and Roll," or God forbid, "Stairway to Heaven" (which he only ever seems to sing under Led Zeppelin billing), my pants would have undoubtedly wound up rather sticky, yet there was something even fittingly cooler about his ending with a new song ("Little Maggie"), effusively expressing his appreciation to the adoring crowd and taking bows with the band.

This was a man doing what he loves, on his own terms.

And, aptly given the multiple stairways to our balcony perch at the Riv--which was absolutely sweltering, by the way--it was nothing short of heavenly.

The show was so sublime, I didn't want to miss much of it by shooting video. But here's a snippet I took of "Ramble On" to give you the idea:

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