Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters, Britt Fest, Jacksonville, OR- 7/2
When Robert Plant walked on stage a woman in front of me began to cry. The charismatic rock-and-roll frontman, who helped create the “rock god” archetype 40 years ago, standing before you with a microphone gripped firmly in his hands can do this to a person. He’s a living rock legend and a true performer with a unique style that altered the face of music and influenced countless of his contemporaries.
His stage presence was exquisite. Wearing the rockstar icon in every joint of his body, he moved and held himself in true performance etiquette, modeled largely after… himself. Theatrical and exaggerated, he kicked the mic stand and danced dramatically and expressively around the stage squeezing his hips in twisted dips and turns. The evening started with a Joan Baez cover, “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.” They followed with a Led Zeppelin song (the first of many), “In the Mood.” The keyboards twinkled eerily under John Baggott’s fingers while stretched chords screamed in muffled squeals and two guitars howled in high-range distortion. Influences of Plant’s more recent work, with artists like Alison Krauss, trickled into his classic metal rock vocal tones and phrasing.
Pummeling “Tin Pan Valley,” Plant stood at the lip of the stage and swept his arms through the air in a wide breath, pushing tangible auditory waves up the hillside. The band broke into instrumental metal. Pinning down the guitar strings, torturing them until they squealed. Skilled musicians, this remained Robert Plant’s show and the band: rock-and-roll mercenaries backing an iconic frontman. The dynamic lacked a cohesive musical conversation capable of infusing this collaboration with potency and raw fire of Plant’s previous projects.
Most well known for his distinctive voice, Plant has been named top metal vocalist of all time (Hit Parader, 2006), greatest voice in rock (Planet Rock, 2009), among the top greatest singers of all time (Rolling Stone, 2008), greatest rock frontmen of all time (Spin), listed as a contender for artist of the century (Q Magazine, 2009) and named as one of the 50 greatest voices in the world (NPR, 2010). Accolades in this proportion are typically dealt at the end of a profound, shape shifting career. Robert Plant is no exception.
The fire behind his famous voice has dulled significantly from the Led Zeppelin era and much of the spectacle of the performance lay in the nostalgia of the original voice playing many of the original Zeppelin songs but lacked their original ecstatic height and range.
Juldeh Camara introduced his African violin to stage and changed the show from a lackluster rocker playing distilled variations of stellar hits to a skilled, revolutionary musician filtering world music through the colander of a metal pot. This was new, interesting and beautiful. Egyptian tones tiptoed through a rock jungle starting “Black Dog” slowly. Asking the audience if there was anybody out there, Plant offered the mic to chime in on the, “Ah, Ah’s,” coaxing the audience to engage. It was a challenging task as the audience baffled me by remaining seated the majority of the show, going to the extent of yelling at me to sit down and throwing items when I stood to dance. How could the same man who once won an award for best chest in rock now play to a crowd of aggressively seated spectators? The Britt Festival (in the tiny, historic town of Jacksonville Oregon) continually impresses me with their ability to host world class acts on a stage at the base of a grassy hillside where they still allow you to bring in your own food, wine and beer and enjoy a picnic style concert. I’m also continually flabbergasted by the audience’s strong determination and fight to remain sedentary for the duration of these big acts. The African violin carried the song through the end, infusing new life and a brilliant, light beauty to the Zeppelin classic.
More Zeppelin filled the set with “Going to California,” “Friends,” “What Is And What Should Never Be” and ending the set with “Whole Lotta Love.” An encore began with a jest at America’s 4th of July celebrations by playing a British folk song, “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” that, “George III wished he’d written,” according to Plant. Returning to Zeppelin roots they closed out the show with “Rock and Roll.” It’s an established set he seems to be recycling through the current tour with subtle variations here and there. The set, like the show itself, was: iconic, honoring the span and caliber of a living rock legend and well worth the price of admission, while at the same time stale and reliving a quality product of the past without the collective momentum and collaborative cohesive power of the band building this thing from the ground up.