The Golden God of rock may show signs of graying, complementing the ever-shifting colors of his musical spectrum, but at those crucial moments in his live set when the honey drips and the sweat hits the groove, Robert Plant’s wail remains the same.
The former Led Zeppelin frontman dazzled a soldout audience at the Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City on Tuesday with his new band, the Sensational Space Shifters. To his credit, Plant does his best to distance his current project from its legendary predecessor, to the point of offering up completely revamped versions of Led Zep numbers along with some energizing new material.
But there were those few telltale moments where he just couldn’t help himself — or perhaps he simply wanted to offer up a reminder of what was and what likely should never be again. That’s when fans heard that trademark wail that is so perfectly Plant, and all was right once again in the musical universe.
That upper register howl appeared most dramatically in two numbers, “The Rain Song” and “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.” The two songs were ideal candidates, starting slow and tranquil before gradually building to the point where the legendary wail could no longer be restrained.
Moments like those, and so many more Tuesday, drove home this point: There are a lot of great bands and talented musicians that pass through the local concert circuit in any given year — but occasionally there are true legends. How do you know? It’s like the old adage, you know it when you see, and hear, it. Their brilliance at their craft is easily undeniable, and their iconic status confirmed anew. Such is the case with Plant.
Plant and Co. last passed through these parts four years ago, playing in the cozy — and completely cramped — confines of The Depot. The Eccles Theater offered a lot more breathing room for everyone, but still, most importantly, presented the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer in a fairly intimate setting when compared to his renown.
Plant performed 13 songs in a 1-hour, 35-minute set. Sure, the 71-year-old could have played a bit longer, but the pace did not feel rushed as several songs were expanded and explored in musically diverse directions.
As mentioned, the Led Zep recreations offered totally different takes than their original versions. This created a weird, yet invigorating dichotomy. On the one ear, you had easily recognizable lyrics that flowed freely in everyone’s mind as they were being delivered — and mostly ready to be sung back to Plant when he occasionally entreated the crowd to take over a vocal line. But on the other lobe, lo, the song’s pacing, tempo and vocal melodies were distinctly altered.
This was most significantly apparent in the opener, “When the Levee Breaks,” and shortly thereafter in the irrepressible “Black Dog.” A segment of the fans seemed to be so tuned into the retrofitted “Black Dog” that they were a bit slow on the uptake when Plant first signaled them to take over a line.
“So much for the community singing,” Plant wryly noted after the song. Things definitely got better after that.
Another huge highlight was “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.” The song started with an acoustic guitar solo by Liam “Skin” Tyson. The song was quiet and subdued for a good portion, before really building intensity. Then it reverted back to more Tyson acoustic soloing. There were a handful of false endings to the song, each one seemingly signaling the final strum, only to have Tyson start playing again before finally reverting back to another chorus. Plant sat on the drum riser in semi shadows intently watching and enjoying Tyson’s performance through most of that, before standing up to begin singing the final portion.
Guitarist Justin Adams had several opportunities to shine as well — notably during the grinding rocker “Turn It Up” and an extended acoustic guitar entry into “Carry Fire.”
The same can be said for keyboardist John Baggott, bassist Billy Fuller and drummer John Blease, with each getting his moment in the spotlight as well. The band was extremely tight, and it’s obvious they share a solid rapport as there was frequent interaction between members and occasional shared smiles and laughter between them and Plant.
In fact, when there appeared to be some slight bobble before starting one song, Plant laughed it off with the crowd.
“We know what we’re doing” he chuckled. “We do it all the time.”
Lillie Mae also spiced up the proceedings on fiddle. Mae was the opening act, displaying an amazing voice and proficiency on both the acoustic guitar and fiddle during her 35-minute, Nashville-tinged support set. But Mae also joined the Sensational Space Shifters for numerous songs, lending her fiddle-playing talents to the melange of musical diversity.
While the crowd was surely more familiar with the Zep material, the original Sensational Space Shifters songs fit right in. “Turn It Up,” “Carry Fire” and “Fixin’ to Die” were all excellently deployed between the Zep tunes and well received by the audience.
“What Is and What Should Never Be” closed the main set on a high note, with Plant and the SSS returning for a three-song encore. The extra segment opened with “New World,” the first track on the band’s latest album, 2017’s “Carry Fire.” That gave way to Zep classics “Gallows Pole” and the highly contagious “Ramble On.”
“Thanks for coming out,” Plant said before walking off stage. “See you again one day. ... I hope.”
We hope so too. It’s not often one gets to see someone who is unquestionably on the Mt. Rushmore of rock frontmen. It’s an opportunity not to be missed.
To see a full Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters setlist from Tuesday’s show, CLICK HERE.