Robert Plant at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom: What You Can Learn from a Tireless Legend

By Brian Ives 

Neil Young famously said, “‘Heart of Gold’ put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch.” It’s a sentiment that Robert Plant can surely appreciate.

That quote went through my mind a few times last night and Plant and his latest backing ensemble, the Sensational Space Shifters, tore through a powerful set at New York City’s Hammerstein Ballroom.

Plant’s own “Heart of Gold,” or Harvest, if you will, is his six-GRAMMY-winning 2007 collaboration with Alison Krauss, Raising Sand. It was a stellar achievement, and a great album worthy of the kudos it received, and the new audience it gained.

Related: 2013 Concert Review: Robert Plant Brings Blues To The 21st Century With Brooklyn Show 

But it should have surprised exactly no one when he backed out of a follow-up album; keep in mind, this is the guy who seems uninterested in a Led Zeppelin reunion, despite the fact that it would surely be worth tens of millions of dollars to him.

His eventual follow-up, 2010’s Band of Joy, kept him in the Americana vein, but brought him to much weirder places. He was headed for the ditch which Young evoked. Still, he’d been accepted by the Americana scene; and was working with the likes of Buddy Miller, Darrell Scott and Patty Griffin (the latter of whom he was rumored to be romantically involved with). It would have been understandable if he made Austin or Nashville his retirement home, both geographically and creatively.

Robert Plant (Maria Ives for Radio.com)

(Maria Ives for Radio.com) 

Which brings us to his most recent project, last year’s Lullaby And… the Ceaseless Roar. He left America, and Americana, for Europe and a more progressive, experimental sound. He’s been touring for about three years with the core band from the album, and this particular collective seems to really suit Plant. They play the new songs with the swagger of a band who knows they’ve done something great (and are unconcerned about the critical or commercial reaction to it). They love playing his old songs, but they don’t play them with the reverence of guys who grew up on “triple shots” of Zeppelin on “Get the Led Out.” Like Plant, they play those songs with the curiosity of artists who are looking to see just how far they can stretch the canvas that they’re painting on.

Related: 2014 Concert Review: Robert Plant Brings His ‘Lullaby’ And ‘Roar’ to Brooklyn

Last night’s set was mostly made up of Lullaby songs and updates of Zeppelin classics; there were also new takes on blues standards: “Spoonful,” “I Just Want To Make Love To You” and “Crawling King Snake.” Most of Plant’s pre-Lullaby discography was ignored, other than his take on the traditional “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down” (which he recorded for Band of Joy).

The setlist also reminded me of Young; Young doesn’t shy from his catalog, but doesn’t feel bound to it, or to any particular parts of it. He may play “Heart of Gold” on a given night; he might not. He doesn’t care how you feel about that choice, either. Young, and Plant, seem to incorporate music from their respective catalogs into their set lists based on how those songs fit in with the current project (or current mood). What it isn’t based on is radio play or number of downloads.

Related: What Would Led Zeppelin Have Sounded Like in the ’80s?

If you want to go see Led Zeppelin songs performed faithfully, you can check out Lez Zeppelin or Led Zeppelin 2 or any other number of tribute bands. But if you want to see the singer of Led Zeppelin sing those songs with passion and creativity, do make it a point to see Robert Plant in concert. Or go on YouTube and find recordings of him reimagining “Trampled Underfoot” with disco guitar; a slowed down “Black Dog”; “Dazed and Confused” with a Celtic breakdown; or a take on “Whole Lotta Love” that’s even weirder than the original.

Robert Plant (Maria Ives for Radio.com)

(Maria Ives for Radio.com) 

And there’s a lesson to be learned there, and not just for musicians, or even artists. You don’t have to be tethered to your past, but you can still honor it. You can recognize your history with pride, without being bound to it. You may appreciate the past more when you’re not always living in it.

Your story doesn’t end when you’re 40, or 50, or 60. You can make crazy moves, change the way you’re doing things, and bust out of your comfort zone.  Listen to music you’ve never listened to before. Go to a restaurant that serves food you’ve never tried. Hang out with people who don’t know that well. Learn a new skill. Your story isn’t over.

I interviewed Plant back in 2002, and when discussing why he ended his ’90s collaboration with Jimmy Page, he said [and I’m paraphrasing] that he didn’t have a lot of time left, and he only wanted to be involved in projects that he really had passion for. He didn’t want to spend the rest of his career as an artist playing old hits in hockey arenas.

Robert Plant (Maria Ives for Radio.com)

(Maria Ives for Radio.com) 

Even though Mr. Plant seemed acutely aware of the passage of time 13 years ago, his discography since then has been frankly, great, and it’s not unreasonable to expect a few more excellent efforts before the last page of his book has been written.

Which leads to a final lesson for the guys in the Sensational Space Shifters: it’s been a great tour, and you’ve done a great album. But Neil Young’s pals in Crazy Horse might tell you: don’t get too comfortable.

~

I have to mention here that the opening act was the Sonics, a legendary Seattle proto-punk band from the ’60s ( you may have caught them in Dave Grohl’s Sonic Highways documentary series). They recently released their first album in nearly five decades. The original lineup disintegrated around the time Zeppelin was getting together in the late ’60s. Expectations for a band like this must be managed.

So, how were they? They killed it! And the lessons to be learned from them are that your story is never over until you’re six feet under. And also: garage rock bands should all have saxophones. Finally, if you have a chance to catch this American treasure, who are still an amazing live band against all odds, do yourself a favor and do it.

 

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