June 23rd was the opening night of the 2011 Ottawa jazz festival and with Robert Plant as the headliner it was a doozy, if not entirely jazzy.
Of course Robert Plant will always commandeer a prominent chapter in the history of popular music as the lead vocalist for Led Zeppelin, and with very good reason. Sure, dude wrote and sang the lyrics to Stairway to Heaven which elevates him to demi-goddery or at least sainthood, but the way he and his young bandmates re-sculpted the hand-selected music of others and transformed it into the codified sound of an entire generation is what garners him an entire wing in the library of rock.
And so it was on this night.
As a looming rainstorm sat on the fringes of the horizon Robert Plant took the stage and began his set with a brilliant reworking of the Led Zeppelin staple Black Dog. Despite being altered to the point of being nearly unrecognizable everyone in the crowd caught it right away, which was pretty much the theme of the evening. The key and the melody lines had been changed to fit more comfortably with Plant’s aging anti-falsetto, the song had been slowed down considerably and I think it was completely devoid of the guitar riff that generally defines it, but it was undeniably Black Dog. Oh, and it was fantastic! Robert Plant had sacrificed a sacred cow and we all ate it up.
What Is and What Should Never Be also came early and included a delicious pedal steel guitar line that still rings in my ears today. And they did Misty Mountain Hop too…what a treat it was to hear the real-live Robert Plant belt out some of the most classic Led Zeppelin – songs that seemed to have simply evolved fully-formed inside my ears as I rifled through my teen years – and to sing them in a way that was new and fresh rather than a tiresome attempt at reaching for past glories. I was breathless, but he wasn’t.
There was a bunch of similarly reworked cover songs in there (of course that’s always been one of Plant’s specialties, even if he has been forced to deny it in court) by the likes of Los Lobos and Richard Thompson, and like the covers of his own covers they were also great (though I didn’t know all the words like I did with the Zeppelin tunes).
As the stormclouds somehow managed to stay at bay Plant finished his concert with a romp through the traditional Gallows Pole that was probably as close to his old band’s version than anything else he had played, through pretty much the only thing that was the same was the key. I don’t know how many people might have showed up that evening hoping for essentially a Led Zeppelin concert but I can’t imagine that anyone walked away disappointed despite their expectations.
In addition to keeping anyone from saying “too bad he couldn’t hit those high notes anymore…”, with a show like this Robert Plant was warning us all to never ever miss a Robert Plant tour, because even though you’ll definitely hear a legendary vocalist singing Led Zeppelin classics you’ll never know what you’re actually going to get. But it will certainly be good.