Robert Plant kept joking about delivering “an evening of soft rock” Friday at Taste of Chicago in Grant Park.
It was his tongue-in-cheek way of acknowledging that the bare-chested “golden god” of the ‘70s is more like a snake-charmer these days. Plant knows it would be pointless to re-create the roar of Led Zeppelin. His voice isn’t what it used to be, and he’s adamantly refused to cash in on a reunion tour with his old band, preferring to explore new avenues with a variety of musicians over the last three decades.
The performance was the centerpiece of one of the best Taste of Chicago lineups in years. The pavilion was sold out, and patrons filled the free lawn space on Butler Field. They were rewarded with a masterful 90-minute set by an artist who keeps moving forward at a time when most 64-year-old members of rock's royalty are cruising in nostalgia mode. Many Plant fans would love for him to play a straight set of by-the-book Zeppelin covers, but the singer had other ideas -- such as working with a band that includes a member of British trip-hop maestros Massive Attack and Portishead (John Baggott) and a West African vocalist and multi-instrumentalist (Juldeh Camara).
Baggott, Camara and the rest of the Sensational Space Shifters put a futuristic spin on Plant’s love of deep blues and country. The sextet's time-shifting arrangements suited Plant’s weathered but still supple voice; he doesn’t nail the high notes like he used to, nor does he try. He’s more about playing with subtler shades of tone and phrasing, dancing with the syncopated rhythms and plunging into the drone to excavate melodies.
The arrangements of Zep favorites rarely hewed to the original blueprint. “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” was reorganized around Liam “Skin” Tyson’s ravishing flamenco guitar. The band replaced the metallic blast of “Black Dog” with an exotic shimmy, via Camara’s kologo (an African banjo). The blues standard “Sugar Mama,” Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love” and an African one-string fiddle weaved through “Whole Lotta Love.”
Plant delighted in drawing connections across continents and centuries. He traced the black diaspora with Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful,” from Chicago to Mississippi and back to Africa with Camara’s violin solo, while Baggott’s keyboards provided an eerie sci-fi backdrop. In another piece, the band approximated a version of Ghanian hip-hop, with Camara rapping over syncopated talking drums. These complemented the doom-and-drone dynamics of “Tin Pan Valley” and the Eastern guitar tonalities of Justin Adams on “The Enchanter.”
As adventurous as the material was – some of the covers barely hinted at the sound of the originals – it skirted self-indulgence. The ensemble created an intricate web, blending acoustic and traditional instruments from the American South and Africa with Baggott’s keyboards-from-Mars atmospherics. Drummer Dave Smith and bassist Billy Fuller favored rhythms that skipped and skittered rather than overwhelmed.
“Soft rock” it may have been – at least in comparison to the thunder of Zeppelin at its mightiest – but it moved and shivered, and Plant slipped inside it like the skilled vocal shaman he has become. With just two acoustic guitars backing him, he was at his mesmerizing best on a sparse reading of Zep’s “Going to California.” The road idyll suited the mood of pastoral psychedelia, even with the city skyline looming at the end of a beautiful summer day. “Standing on a hill in my mountain of dreams,” Plant sang, still searching for the new in the shadows of his towering past.
Robert Plant set list Friday at Taste of Chicago:
1. Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You
2. In the Mood
3. Tin Pan Valley
4. Spoonful (Howlin’ Wolf)
5. Black Dog
6. Another Tribe
7. Going to California
8. The Enchanter
9. Talking-drum interlude
10. What is and What Should Never Be
11. Fixin' to Die (Bukka White)
12. Whole Lotta Love
13. Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down
14. Rock and RollCopyright © 2015, RedEye