Friday, September 25, 2015

June Agreeably Becomes September: Energized and Defiant, Robert Plant Looks Back, Forward on His Own Terms -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Robert Plant
and the Sensational Space Shifters
w/ opening act JD McPherson
FirstMerit Bank Pavilion, Chicago
September 23, 2015
(rescheduled from June 10)

"These are the Sensational Space Shifters," imparted Robert Plant to the robust crowd gathered at the FirstMerit Bank Pavilion about the impressive collection of musicians with whom he has toured for the past 3 years.

"It could've been different, but it ain't. Thank God."

Although I don't share Plant's aversion to a reconvening of Led Zeppelin--I'd be at a reunion show in a heartbeat--I admire not only his resistance, but the way he seems to revel in his disinterest.

And though, with Wednesday having been the last Space Shifters show on the books, clamoring for a re-Zeppification is likely to reach a crescendo--from the public, press and Jimmy Page, if not necessarily in that order--Plant once again aptly demonstrated that there are more apparently gratifying ways for him to spend his time and talent.

Yet rather than being unwilling to revisit his past--Plant's sets include a good amount of Zep, as well as covers of bluesy, rootsy songs that influenced his passions and career path--the still golden-tressed singer seems simply not to have any need to relive it.

Especially as someone a bit too young to have followed Led Zeppelin when they ruled the earth--though I did relish when my dad added 1979's In Through the Out Door to our family's record collection--it's easy to envision the great music, packed stadiums, worldwide superstardom and larger-than-life existence as a dream anyone would relish resurrecting.

But groupies swarming hotel hallways may not seem as fantastical when you're 67 as at 25, and given that Zeppelin ended with the substance excess-related death of drummer John Bonham--a pre-Zep friend and bandmate of Plant's--while Page also battled harrowing addictions, the realities and recollections may not be as utopian as outsiders may imagine.

Plant also tragically lost his young son during the Zeppelin years, and despite the record-breaking revenues a reunion tour would generate, for an already rich man the idea of reboarding the mothership may not only feel unnecessary but emotionally fraught, especially given the demands and expectations involved--vocally and otherwise.

Still, any inference that Plant isn't abundantly proud of what he, Page, Bonham and John Paul Jones created and accomplished, nor appreciative of the fervor with which fans continue to exalt Led Zeppelin 35 years after their breakup, was again proven misguided throughout Wednesday's 90-minute performance on Northerly Island.

I might even suggest that from an artistic standpoint--rather than in terms of publicity, crowd-size, cross-generational reach, rampant news feed regurgitation or catalog album sales--Plant may well be doing more to promote the monumental merits of his old band than  a reunion run would.

Having been enraptured by Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters' transcendent performance at Chicago's intimate Riviera Theatre just last October, my friend Paolo and I bought tickets for the June date not only as something of an encore--happy to have three other friends newly Planted nearby--but in good part due to the somewhat odd inclusion of indie-rock heroes, The Pixies, as the opening act. (I've also seen Plant several other times over the years, including on two tours with Page in the '90s.) 

The June 10 date wound up coinciding with a Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup Finals game, so I wasn't too chagrined when it was canceled on the day of the show due to an illness impeding Plant's voice, but it's too bad the Pixies weren't part of the makeup date, even if--despite being a longtime fan--I wasn't all that enthralled by their festival sets I've caught in recent years.

In their absence, an Oklahoman named JD McPherson and his band delivered a solidly enjoyable opening set in being graciously allotted a full hour by the headliner, who likely appreciates the melange of rock, country, folk, rockabilly, Americana, bluegrass, Appalachian roots music and other styles & textures that have factored heavily into Plant's own musical explorations, including his Grammy-winning Raising Sand album with Alison Krauss.

With the 6-piece Space Shifters more than dextrous enough to traipse all these genres and more--it was again reiterated that Robert Plant doesn't get nearly the credit he deserves for westernizing "World Music" in a way akin to Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel and David Byrne--Plant opened with a rendition of Zeppelin's "Trampled Underfoot" that was both faithful and reinterpreted at the same time.

His still-supple legendary voice the thread that seamlessly linked tunes from 2014's stellar Lullaby and... the Ceaseless Roar ("Turn It Up," "Rainbow," "Little Maggie") with Zeppelin classics ("Black Dog," "Dazed and Confused," "Whole Lotta Love," "Rock and Roll") and old blues covers reminiscent of those in Zep's early canon ("Spoonful," "Fixin' to Die"), Plant impressively foraged the estimable talents of his backing band, including Juldeh Camara on a distinctive African one-string fiddle. (See the full setlist on

Way beyond pandering stage patter to the local crowd, Plant graciously recognized that without Chicago record labels like Chess, Vee Jay and Delmark bringing the blues and other American music to Britain, he likely wouldn't have Led the life he has.

(I couldn't help but note that the old Chess Records studio, now the Willie Dixon Blues Heaven Foundation perhaps in part funded by latter-day "Whole Lotta Love" royalties, was only about 2 miles from the lakefront venue.)

Lest anyone forget the "Hammer of the Gods" amidst the diverse soundscape, guitarists Skin Tyson and Justin Adams brought requisite power to Page's iconic riffs in all the right places.

Likely my favorite moment of the night was when Tyson, on acoustic guitar, took centerstage alongside Plant and keyboardist John Baggott for a lushly beautiful take on "The Rain Song" from Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy that served to enhance appreciation for both the original version and what Plant has been doing of late.

It was also reminiscent of the sublime rendition of "Going to California" I witnessed last year at the Riv, a show both Paolo and I agreed was just more mind-blowing due to the proximity that served to make the power chords that much more thunderous. 

That some different Zeppelin tunes took the place of "Ramble On," "What Is and What Should Never Be" and "Bring It On Home," made this Plant show wonderfully complementary, but while terrific, the primordial oomph was just a bit diminished.

Nonetheless, on a beautiful night, with the Chicago skyline as a backdrop in the company of great friends, hearing rock's quintessential singer actually building on his legacy in somewhat unsuspecting fashion--yet again--made not only for the next best thing to a Led Zeppelin reunion, but perhaps, in certain regards, something even better.

This is a nice composite video a YouTube user named zepperl posted from Wednesday's Robert Plant show, including parts of "The Rain Song" and "Whole Lotta Love," among others: 

1 comment:

Ken said...


A good review, well balanced and sensitive to the nuances.

The show planted memories that will last a lifetime for me and my daughter.