Robert Plant doesn't live in the past, but that doesn't mean he can't revisit it and fool around with some new twists. With his current sidemen, the Sensational Space Shifters, Plant has breathed new life into Led Zeppelin classics.
The 64-year old singer walked onto the Britt stage Tuesday night clad in black, dark blonde curls over his shoulders as ever, and the crowd screamed as he sang the opening lines of "Babe" and threw the microphone around as the tune quickened.
Plant's voice is a tad lower than it was when he was a young man, but if Britt had painted walls, Plant's voice could still burn paint off.
Since teaming with Alison Krauss in 2007, and then working with Patti Griffin and Band of Joy, he spent the last few years delving into Americana, Mississippi to Nashville, Leadbelly to the Carter Family.
His present aggregation — guitarists Justin Adams and Skin Tyson, drummer Dave Smith, West African musician Juldeh Camara, keyboardist John Baggott and bassist Billy Fuller — comes from more of an urban Brit sensibility.
Sporting a little goatee, Plant seemed at ease as he sang straight-ahead rockers like the post-Zeppelin oldie "In the Mood" and "Tin Pan Alley" from 2005's "Mighty ReArranger." Go off on mid-song riffs, stretch out on some vintage Led Zep, throw in a dash of Afro-beat, some techno and some spicy loops and samples, and, well, you get the idea.
The musical ideas are closer to Plant's mystical "ReArranger" stuff, which also merged West African rhythms with folky and psychedelic elements, than to his Americana stage. The imagery in the Sensational Space Shifters stage backdrop speaks volumes. It has a strong 1967-ish thing goin' on in an array of vibrant colors that changed with the lights.
"Spoonful" came with a different groove from the one you remember, and found Plant dancing around as darkness began to gather and the lights came up. Camara entered, and the band sneaked into "Black Dog" almost before the audience, which knew most of the words to many of the songs, saw it coming.
The versions of Zeppelin tunes weren't the same as the old ones. "Black Dog" got a new interpretation, but also quoted the one on "Led Zeppelin IV."
Camara played fetching sounds on the ritti (a one-stringed African violin) and the kologo (the African banjo), but he only played here and there. Most of the night he was absent. There's a legend around him involving his Griot father and some Gambian forest spirits, but space prevents, etc.
"Another Tribe," another not-too-old tune, found the guitarists switching to acoustic axes for a tad of that old mystic vibe.
But the one that finally got everybody up and dancing was not one of the harder rockers but "Goin' to California," sung to just acoustic guitar and mandolin, which turned into a sing-along.
"The Enchanter" began all power-ballady and then just rampaged, more mid-period Plant mysticism ("She's fixing up a potion made of laughter and love / And I will follow the enchanter on the road to the sun").
The stage was bathed in red light for a powerful "Please Read the Letter." Plant expected the crowed to sing along, supply a chorus or a line here and there, and they didn't disappoint him.
Bukka White's driving "Fixin' To Die" was the rare piece of Americana, a rousing testament to Plant's longtime love of Mississippi Blues as well as a nod to Zep medleys of old.
Then, too soon, it was a reviewer's pumpkin time. If the band played the iconic "Rock and Roll," it must have been the end of the set or an encore, but ooh, Robert Plant has got it back, got it back, mmm baby, where he comes from.
Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at email@example.com.