Robert Plant will turn 70 years old this August, an age where most rock stars seem content to coast on past glories. And while the iconic Led Zeppelin frontman could get by doing that, he has taken a far different course over the past decade – crafting one of the more improbable late-career resurgences in recent memory.
Friday brought Plant to Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium to open the U.S. leg of his “Carry Fire” tour, accompanied by the aptly named Sensational Space Shifters backup band. The tour’s second stop is Sunday in Charlotte.
And while anybody who wanted to hear “Stairway to Heaven” came away disappointed, the show was indeed pretty sensational.
Plant hit a post-Zeppelin high point with 2007’s Alison Krauss/T Bone Burnett collaboration “Raising Sand,” an Americana landmark. And since then, he has seemingly dedicated himself to demonstrating that the album’s “Old Weird Americana” aesthetic can work just as well when expanded to include the rest of the world.
Friday night’s 100-minute set ranged from jam-heavy blues-rock along the lines of late-period Bob Dylan to intercontinental world-beat space-rock with a little of everything. I found myself scribbling phrases like “flamenco spaghetti-western beatbox” and “interstellar drumline” in my notebook, trying to describe various songs.
It wasn’t all change-ups, however. Some of the show’s loveliest and best-received moments were songs where Plant played it pretty straight, especially an unplugged acoustic version of the old Led Zeppelin ballad “That’s the Way.”
The soldout crowd was, of course, adoring – almost too much so, because a few people kept screaming during the quiet parts. One husky male voice yelled repeatedly, “I LOVE YOU SO MUCH.” And when Plant got to the “I’ve got to ramble” line in “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,” a delirious “WHOO” went up from the crowd.
You also got the sense that a lot of the crowd would have preferred more of the Zeppelin oldies. Those songs certainly received the most enthusiastic response (and the most camera time on everybody’s mobile phones).
Expectations aside, however, it was a show that ranks as the coolest musicology on the road today. Selections included Mississippi bluesman Bukka White’s “Fixin’ to Die,” during which guitarist Justin Adams did a very cool solo where he hit the body of his instrument as much as the strings; fascinating interpretations of the folk songs “Gallows Pole” and “Little Maggie”; and Zeppelin’s “Misty Mountain Hop” arranged as a hoedown fiddle tune.
The encore closer was “Whole Lotta Love,” another Zeppelin song that Plant has put through some changes on past tours. This version started out pretty straight up before veering into more idiosyncratic territory with a fiddle solo and sea-shanty chorus of “Santianna” that Plant threw in between verses (“Heave her up and away we’ll go, down to the Gulf of Mexico”).
Then it was back to that signature dive-bombing guitar riff. Sometimes, after all, you just wanna rock.
The tour continues in Charlotte Feb. 11 at 8 p.m. at Ovens Auditorium. Only a few tickets remain, and they start at $90.