Music

Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters Rock the Timeline in Oakland

Photo: Mads Perch (Big Hassle)

When the lights go down at the Fox, a charge of electricity surges through the air from the collective excitement that comes with witnessing a genuine living legend like Robert Plant deliver music that truly transcends time and space.

Uptown Oakland is buzzing with excitement, and there's a huge line extending around the block from the Fox Theater because there's rock royalty in town in the form of Robert Plant and his Sensational Space Shifters. Few artists have been more influential in the rock world then Plant was with Led Zeppelin. The legendary band not only helped define the mystical power of rock 'n' roll throughout the 1970s, but they also did it in such an impactful way that Led Zep's music has remained a cultural touchstone for each successive generation of music fans.

The 69-year-old Plant is now among a small handful of artists writing the book on how to keep pushing musical boundaries past the age of senior citizenship, continuing to take chances instead of just cranking out the classic hits that could surely fill arenas and stadiums around the world if he so chose. 2017's Carry Fire is another solid effort with Plant and his bandmates using a diverse array of instrumentation to conjure a sound that blends contemporary rock, blues and Americana with some old world flavor that makes it easy to envision Plant as a troubadour from Middle Earth, just as Zeppelin songs such as "Ramble On" and "Misty Mountain Hop" once suggested.

Some critics have taken Plant and Jimmy Page to task over the years for allegedly pandering to fans of the fantasy genre. But the massive global popularity of the six films based on The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit here in the 21st century has actually demonstrated that Plant and Page were ahead of the curve in this area, just as they were with their incendiary music. When the lights go down at the Fox, a charge of electricity surges through the air from the collective excitement that comes with witnessing a genuine living legend deliver music that truly transcends time and space.

"The May Queen" from Carry Fire is an early highlight with a shimmering sound that seems to tap into the bright acoustic vibe of Led Zeppelin III, an increasingly attractive sonic flavor for both musicians and fans as they move into middle age and beyond. "Rainbow" from 2014's Lullabye… and the Ceaseless Roar is another gem. When Plant sings "I will sing my song for you, and I will carry on", it feels like he's on a mission to help maintain vibrations for peace and harmony during this dystopian era where the forces of darkness and evil seem to have the upper hand in the battle for humanity's collective soul.

Plant takes a moment to note that that the band is almost at the end of "the second leg of our interplanetary tour", hinting at how this music is surely popular among the interplanetary highways and byways that the late jazz great Sun Ra has also alluded to. That sets the stage for the first Zeppelin song of the evening with a well-timed move into Led Zeppelin III's "That's the Way", which conjures shrieks of delight from the audience. Some great mandolin work helps the song shine, while Plant's voice sounds as strong as ever before shaking a tambourine to propel the beat further as the audience starts clapping along during the mandolin solo.

"Please Read the Letter" -- a song Plant recorded with both Jimmy Page in 1998 and then again for a hit version with Alison Krause in 2007 -- fits into the set nicely with the band conjuring that old world kind of sound that again feels like it could have come from Led Zeppelin III outtakes. There's something about that third Zeppelin album that seems to gain a deeper appreciation from fans as they grow older. The acoustic-oriented album stands out quite a bit from the hard rocking albums that both preceded and followed it, but the songs are strong, and the sound now seems like a visionary template for the back side of Plant's career. That is demonstrated further as the band gives "Gallows Pole" a dynamic workout, with the audience again clapping along to the infectious rhythms.

The title track from Carry Fire mixes things up as the band employs some Eastern melodies as a platform for what seems like Plant reflecting on Zeppelin's early tours of America when he sings, "I was a stranger here inside your promised land, that turned me inside out and turned me upside down". This makes for a strategic segue into "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" from Led Zeppelin's eponymous 1969 debut, a tune that clearly takes many in the audience back to their formative years judging from the excitable reactions across the theater. Plant leads the audience through a mystical journey here, with the band adding some exquisite sonic explorations in the bridge section to stretch the song out to nearly ten glorious minutes.

The band gives the Bukka White blues classic "Fixin' to Die" a harder-edged and more electrified treatment than most of the evening's material, with Plant cranking the blues-rock power up a notch as the set steams toward a big finish. A re-arranged "Misty Mountain Hop" features acoustic guitar and fiddle, yet is still delivered with a transcendent power reflecting the song's inherently timeless quality and Plant's ability to work his sonic alchemy in almost any format.

The magic continues in the encore segment as Plant returns to deliver his classic solo hit "In the Mood", which was teased on the PA when the lights first went down. The song loses none of its uplifting magic in a stripped-down arrangement, with some sublime melodic jamming led by the piano and violin as Plant really gets his mojo working. The band then cranks up the electricity one more time to thrill the assembled with a "Bring It On Home/Whole Lotta Love" mashup that brings down the house. Plant leads the audience in a jazz hands revelry at the end, as fans soak up the sonic vibrations until the resonance of the final note concludes.

The desire to hear such classic Zeppelin songs remains ever the same among the band's loyal fan base. Plant, however, must be credited with following his muse to create new music and new arrangements that remain faithful to the spirit of the music, even as he explores new ways to deliver the classics.

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