If you’ve never experienced a Robert Plant performance with backing band The Sensational Space Shifters, you could be forgiven for being jarred into cognitive dissonance by hearing the typical staccato guitar bursts of Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” replaced with languid electric fiddle and psychedelic organ flourishes.
But that’s the point, isn’t it? Plant has never felt particularly bound to tradition, and so, Tuesday night’s reframing of old rock and blues standards in Americana, bluegrass and world music archetypes was simply his latest means of keeping the music he loves a living, breathing and captivating entity — rather than a museum showpiece to be revered under glass.
Plant is less feral wolfman now than slinky ringleader, though he he was no less mesmerizing for it at the Eccles Theater.
Every open-handed upward sweep of the right arm instructing the crowd to sing along, every thumbs-tucked-in-belt-loops two-step jig to a countrified jam, every lip-curling pouty face, every sparkle-fingered exhortation to fan the flames of an already-incendiary Gibson six-string solo only went to prove that even if he is increasingly distancing himself from “rock god” status, he is no less some kind of magical deity still.
His band, meanwhile (bolstered by the periodic appearance of opening act and fiddler extraordinaire Lillie Mae), proved wonderfully adept proselytizers in 13 tracks spread out over the show’s hour-and-30-minutes run time.
“The Rain Song” was divided into distinctive thirds, the first defined by an almost sweeping orchestral vibe, the middle dominated by electric ax, the latter toned down by acoustic guitar and piano. “Carry Fire” was prefaced by a long, odd, but enthralling combination of textured flamenco from longtime guitarist Justin Adams and sweeping sonic feedback from keyboardist/programmer John Baggott.
“Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” was bisected by extended acoustic interludes from guitarist Liam “Skin” Tyson. “Little Maggie” morphed from pure Appalachian bluegrass to Middle Eastern-tinged world. “Gallows Pole” shape-shifted into an electro-bluegrass rave-up. And a cover of Bukka White’s “Fixin’ to Die” included both a drum feature from Dave Smith and, more interestingly, a guitar solo from Adams that began as a roundabout shuffle and crescendoed with the fervor of a born-again tent revival. Even the straightforward-by-comparison encore opener “New World…” proved a highlight.
The 71-year-old Plant kept his interactions with the audience to a minimum, but he got his money’s worth from them. He introduced “In the Mood” with the sneering toss-off, “This is a song from Greta Van Fleet.” A melodic wobble near the end of “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” yielded a posthumous expletive in apology. Momentary confusion at the start of “Little Maggie” prompted him to interject, to laughs, “We really do know what we’re doing! I promise we’ve done it before!” And he earned thunderous cheers when he reentered the stage for the encore holding aloft a filled wine glass and proceeded to take a deep pull.
After wrapping up the night with “Ramble On,” he told the packed house, “Thanks for coming out. See you again one day!” before pausing momentarily, leaning back in, and adding sheepishly, “I hope!”
That hope was surely shared by those he addressed, if only to get the opportunity to see what comes next.
1. When the Levee Breaks
2. Turn It Up
3. Black Dog
4. In the Mood
5. The Rain Song
6. Carry Fire
7. Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You
8. Little Maggie
9. Fixin’ to Die
10. What Is and What Should Never Be
11. New World…
12. Gallows Pole
13. Ramble On