You expect the word “transcendent” to get thrown around with a band named Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters.
What you might not expect is for the former Led Zeppelin frontman, now 71, to live up to that high praise. Thankfully, you’d be mistaken. “Transcendent” was about the only word this reviewer — and many others in the audience of more than 4,800 I overheard after the show — could think of to describe the once golden-haired, still golden-voiced singer’s set at Les Schwab Amphitheater on Thursday night.
In an interview with GO! Magazine a week before the show, Plant told me, “Whatever you expect, it’s gonna be way beyond.” And for once, an artist talking up his art wasn’t just speaking in hyperbole. For roughly 90 minutes, Plant and his band of the last seven-plus years — guitarists/multi-instrumentalist Liam “Skin” Tyson, guitarist Justin Adams, bassist Billy Fuller, keyboardist John Baggott, drummer John Blease and violinist Lillie Mae Rische (who also opened the show) — turned every song they played into a transformative musical odyssey. Even if you’re familiar with Zeppelin songs such as “Black Dog” or “What is and What Should Never Be” (and if you’re reading this, you probably are), that wouldn’t have prepared you for what the band did to those songs.
Indeed, Plant and company’s reimagining of “Black Dog” as a bluegrass/worldbeat stomper may have been the sharpest left turn the band took all evening — and one of the best. Backed by Adams and Tyson’s shuffling acoustic guitar strums, Rische’s violin morphed the original ascending-descending Jimmy Page guitar riff into a swinging counterpoint to Plant’s powerful vocal performance. It wasn’t until Plant wailed the opening lines of the song that the light went on in my head, and his subsequent back-and-forth with the audience for the post-verse “ah-ah-ah’s” sent the song to another level.
People-watching in the audience before the show began revealed an interesting cross-section: die-hard Zeppelin fans from the band’s original run, fans of Plant’s bluegrass turn with Alison Krauss in the late 2000s, high-school aged heshers in metal T-shirts. That’s what happens when artists keep experimenting, as Plant has since Zeppelin’s demise in 1980, and Plant seemed to be playing for everyone this night.
Zeppelin songs made up about half the set, and not all of them were complete reinventions. “Going to California,” an early highlight, stuck pretty close to the recorded version, with Tyson and Adams trading guitar and mandolin licks as Plant built to the song’s climax. Encore-closing “Ramble On,” meanwhile, maintained the stop-start grinding guitars of the original even as Rische added violin over the top.
Fans of Plant’s acoustic side got plenty to sink their teeth into, including the aforementioned “Going to California” and “Black Dog” reworking. “Carry Fire,” the title track from Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters’ 2017 sophomore album, turned into a Middle Eastern-flavored jam in the live setting, besting the recorded version thanks to the musicians’ intense push-pull dynamics.
But more often than not, everything showed up at once. “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” maintained the stomping chorus of Zeppelin’s original version, but dipped into swirling world- and psychedelic-influenced passages between verses. “Turn it Up,” an early highlight from the Space Shifters’ first album, married a grinding guitar groove to tribal-sounding percussion runs. Other songs such as “Bluebirds Over the Mountain” integrated electronic beats and textures courtesy of Baggott, a veteran of Portishead and Massive Attack.
Throughout, the band kept things tight, with Plant indulging in little stage banter beyond a few quips about the cold. And cold it was, but the music easily transcended that, too.
One extra of note: Before the band took the stage, young climate activist Greta Thunberg’s recent speech at the U.N. Climate Action Summit in New York City played on the screen onstage. The environmentally conscious moment was (mostly) greeted with thunderous applause.
It would be easy for an artist of Plant’s stature to rest on his laurels. That he refuses is proof of that stature. Here’s hoping for many more years of defying expectations.