There is something about seeing a legendary musician that can be so satisfying. When Robert Plant came to Prospect Park this evening for the Celebrate Brooklyn concert series, he did not disappoint.
As someone who is a huge Led Zeppelin fan but has never seen Robert Plant in concert, I didn't know what to expect. I had seen the promotional YouTube videos for his current band, the Sensational Space Shifters, so I knew that this wouldn't be your standard Led Zeppelin style concert. In the videos, the Sensational Space Shifters show an ability to completely re-work Led Zeppelin songs to the point where they are barely recognizable except for lyrics and certain elements of the familiar grooves and melody.
The concert began with the Led Zeppelin classic "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" (actually written by Joan Baez) which was fairly close to the version heard on Led Zeppelin's first album released in 1969. The band was rocking on full tilt, going back and forth between soft acoustic and hard electric passages. Guitarists Justin Adams and Skin Tyson proved more than capable of putting on an excellent show, and asserted themselves from the first song with a very cool flamenco breakdown.
From there, the band went into a couple Robert Plant songs, "In the Mood" and "Tin Pan Valley" which rocked hard enough to keep the crowd really into the show. "Tin Pan Valley" showcased drummer Dave Smith playing the drums with a loose, heavy groove that even John Bonham would have been proud of.
Robert Plant introduced the next song as the 1929 Charlie Patton song recorded by Alan Lomax, "Spoonful." As with the songs all night, the grooves were powerful and muscular with little sonic resemblance to the classic blues rock of Led Zeppelin or even similar bands like Cream. Billy Fuller's basslines had an aggressive in-your-face feeling that teetered on the edge of what you might expect from rockabilly, industrial hard rock, or even electronic styles of music. As an audience member, there was a feeling of freshness and modernity that was intense and immediate.
A banjo solo brought the band back to Led Zeppelin territory with "Black Dog." Actually, this was the first original Led Zeppelin song the band played all night, and the first of 4 songs from Led Zeppelin's IV album that they would play during the concert. The song sounded completely different from the classic version of the song. The foundation on this night would be the Bo Diddley beat; a welcome change for one of the most heavily played songs in the history of classic rock radio.
This brought us in to the introduction of Gambian musician Juldeh Camara who sang the next song. Unfortunately, it was difficult to hear what he was saying. It was difficult to tell whether the band (and especially the drummer) were off during this song, or if the song was just so different from a conventional Western song that it was supposed to sound like that. The band jammed around a groove for awhile and when they finished Robert Plant said "Classic rock!" as if to mock the pressure he might feel from people who want to hear the same songs he had played during his career with Led Zeppelin 40 years ago.
One of the most crowd pleasing songs all night was clearly "Going To California," which had a very large portion of the audience grabbing their smartphones to record video. Plant's voice sounded completely on point, and his backing band provided a backdrop that was true to the Zeppelin classic without sounding like a cover band.
"The Enchanter" was one of the highlights of the show, as the guitars dug into dark melodies and bluesy grit. The groove went into a really beautiful reggae territory in the middle of the song, before coming back to a more conventional rock beat. These were the type of moments that had me realizing just how great of a singer / songwriter / performer Robert Plant really is. He does things that very few other artists would have the guts to do, and while they might not always sound like a polished studio recording they are usually playful and interesting.
This went into another Gambian song, which was one of the low points for the show. Juldeh Camara's vocal microphone had a very heavy delay effect which made it difficult to hear what he was saying. He told the crowd to put their hands up, and only a few hands went up. He sang another song, which Plant joined toward the end to sing "I'm Free Now" as the band jammed around a groove that sounded like "Four Sticks."
After introducing everyone in the band, Robert Plant explained that this was their last concert of their North American tour. It was drummer Dave Smith's first tour with the group. While he clearly struggled at times, he should be given a lot of credit for handling such difficult material and executing an overall excellent performance.
The band played a loose jam that went into another song from the IV album, "Four Sticks," which was followed by an African banjo breakdown that went seamlessly into another Robert Plant tune, which I thought could have been "Come Into My Life" but someone at setlist.fm said that it must be another song. Yet another mystery. From there, the band went into an extremely psychedelic jam that segued into "Friends" off the third Led Zep album. It was somewhat surprising that this was the only song from the third album, because so much of that material could have worked for this band of Sensational Space Shifters and this really was a good fit for their sound.
"Funny in My Mind (Fixin' to Die)" was another highlight of the show, as the band played a tune that was akin to the off-kilter country blues of The Grateful Dead up until Justin Adams stole the show with a '50s era guitar breakdown that harkened back to the time of Les Paul and Chuck Berry.
Another big crowd pleaser, "What Is and What Should Never Be" sounded great. The band locked in to a really tight cohesive unit as the crowd was singing along and rocking out. Then came the final song of the set, "Hoochie Coochie Man," which had Justin Adams guitar sounding absolutely incredible. It was really more of a tease than a full song, as Plant never sang the chorus but the band jammed on the blues going into a version of "Whole Lotta Love" that sounded as great and fresh as ever and included a "Who Do You Love?" section with a violin teasing what might be called Irish Riverdance music.
The first encore was the traditional song "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down" which could be seen as a statement of sorts, given that Led Zeppelin's music has been seen as connected to mysticism and devil worship through the years.
During the encore, Robert Plant thanked the crowd, saying "It's a good thing we do this, 'cuz otherwise we'd be getting old," and then mumbled something about how he wished he had his glasses to actually see the audience. He was sharp all night, and notably he had a couple zingers making fun of REO Speedwagon. Clearly having fun, although it seemed like he and the band may have been a little worn out from a long tour. He thanked the road crew and it was time for the end of the show.
The final song was "Rock and Roll" which sounded nothing like the classic Led Zeppelin version of the song. The only things that were identifiable were the groove and the lyrics, which had the crowd singing along "... lonely, lonely, lonely time" during the chorus.
All in all, a great show. It's a blessing to be able to see an artist like Robert Plant at an outdoor venue in such ideal weather. Not every note was spot on, but the feeling of exploring this classic material made the show fun and exciting for fans while showcasing Robert Plant as one of the great singers, songwriters, and daring stage performers of all time.