Robert Plant Keeps Led Zeppelin’s Legacy Alive Through His Exhilarating Stage Shows

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Listen To This Eddie is a weekly column that examines the important people and events in the classic rock canon and how they continue to impact the world of popular music.

Robert Plant has a complicated relationship with his onetime band Led Zeppelin. On the one hand, he certainly has an immense amount of pride for the songs that he created with John Bonham, John Paul Jones, and Jimmy Page, and there’s definitely a warm place in his heart for some of the good times they shared on and off the road during their ascent in the late 1960s and into the mid-1970s.

On the other hand, however, the group has proven to be an albatross weighted around his neck as he’s pushed deeper and deeper into an increasingly rewarding solo career. It’s something that guaranteed to get brought up in nearly every media interview and every fan interaction. With each fresh project that Plant rolls out into the world, it’s always consumed, talked about, and critiqued underneath a looming, balloon-shaped shadow. It’d be enough to drive anyone mad.

As a recording artist, Plant has done just about all he can to distance himself from his past as the frontman of that band. Whether that means digging deep into American roots music with collaborators like Alison Krauss for the Grammy Award-winning record Raising Sand (snagged the elusive Album Of The Year honor), or pursuing different British, Celtic and Arabic flavors on the last two records with his group the Sensational Space Shifters, Lullaby… And The Ceaseless Roar, and last year’s phenomenal Carry Fire. The only place it seems that Plant is really comfortable embracing his role as the self-proclaimed “Golden God” his Zeppelin acolytes continue to pin on him is during his live shows.

I’ve seen Plant twice in 2018 and both occasions were some of the best gigs I’ve caught in years. The first time was back in February at the Riviera Theater in Chicago, a delightfully dusty and ornate venue that evokes the vibe of Bill Graham’s vaunted ‘60s venue, The Fillmore East. The second occasion was just a couple of weeks ago in the heart of the city at the decidedly more modern Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. At both shows, Plant re-affirmed my opinion that he’s the greatest singer in rock and roll history, filling the atmosphere in each space with his iconic voice, a little deeper in register than it once was perhaps, but no less powerful or engrossing. His innate understanding of dynamics and control defy comprehension. He oozes charisma, dashing off jokes in between song, while cradling and sashaying his mic stand like a newfound lover. He also shocked me with his willfulness to dig deep into the Zeppelin catalog.

The first show at the Riviera leaned more heavily on the Carry Fire material, which makes sense considering the record was still fresh off the shelf, and the relatively intimate 2,500 seat venue was made up of the true die-hards. Songs like “The May Queen,” and especially the North African-tinged title-track took on new dimensions that widened eyeballs in the boisterous crowd. Still, when Plant elected to slip a couple of Zeppelin tracks into the set, you could feel a noticeable uptick in enthusiasm amongst everyone in the room.

That night he performed six Zeppelin tracks. Two hewed toward a more folksy, pastoral sound (“That’s The Way” and “Gallows Pole”), one felt like more of a surprising lark (“Misty Mountain Hop”), another was a bombastic, set-stealing tour de force (“Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”), and that all culminated in an encore mashup of “Bring It On Home” and “Whole Lotta Love.” The most common phrase heard in the flabbergasted crowd exiting the Riviera into the chilly night air was “Holy sh*t!”

In Millennium Park, where the capacity exceeded 10,000, Plant decided to be a little more generous with his offerings for what he must have assumed was a more generally-interested audience. He actually opened the show with an incredible one-two-three punch of “The Lemon Song,” followed by the Led Zeppelin IV deep cut “Four Sticks,” which he played for the first time in five years — at a show just a week earlier in Virginia he played “Hot Dog” for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century — and then an incendiary rendition of “What Is And What Should Never Be.” Later in the set, he also threw in “Going To California,” and reprised “Gallows Pole” and did “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” capping it all off again in the encore with the “Bring It On Home/Whole Lotta Love” hybrid.”

As you can tell, while he remains game to bust out some classics here and there, Plant still can’t quite bring himself to play some of the band’s more notable, epic numbers. While he did perform “Rock And Roll” at a show recently with Sheryl Crowe, if you’re hoping to hear him run through “Achilles Last Stand,” “Kashmir,” and especially “Stairway To Heaven,” don’t hold your breath. That last one, which he’s derided as a sappy “wedding song” numerous times through the years has about as good a chance of making it into the rotation as Barack Obama does of getting elected to a third term as President. As much as you might hope and wish and pray, it ain’t gonna happen.

On both nights, the emotional peak came just a little after the midway point of the 90-minute set, when Plant ceded the spotlight to his acoustic guitarist Liam “Skin” Tyson, took a seat on the drum riser and watched as he performed an extended folk arrangement that morphed into the beginning of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” the Joan Baez ballad that Zeppelin re-interpreted on their first album. The crowd boisterously applauded at the recognition of the familiar melody as Plant rises to softly croon the opening lines. Eventually, the drums bashed their way in, along with the bass, keys, and another guitar. The cacophony rose and halted as a relatively calm whooshing sound washes over the thousands of gathered faces.

Then, as the lights sparkled in our eyes, Plant jumped to the mic and with all the might he could summon and let loose with one explosive scream of “Baaaaaaaaaaaabe!” The cry hung in the air for one, three, five, eight-full seconds, before he finally relented. “I’m gonna leave you, mama!” On both nights, but especially the first when I wasn’t anticipating it, I was absolutely bowled over by the raw power of that moment. It was a not-so unsubtle reminder that while the mane might be a little grayer than it used to be, this lion can still roar with the best of them.

While Jimmy Page spent the better part of two decades ensconced far from the public eye in a number of recording studios, revitalizing Led Zeppelin’s back-catalog through a wide variety of different reissues and live albums, and John Paul Jones has been off pursuing an eclectic array of projects, most notably an opera that he plans to roll out sometime in the near future, the burden has rested on Plant to keep the music of that group alive for the mass amount of fans who hope to consume it live. It’s not a role that he necessarily relishes, preferring as he might to dig deeper into his newest compositions, but it’s one that he performs with total dedication and absolute conviction. You can’t ask for a whole lot more than that.