Robert Plant and The Sensational Space Shifters @ Shrine Auditorium

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All photos by Brian Michaels for the Los Angeles Beat.

Although Led Zeppelin fans continue hankering for the band’s surviving principals to slog through the reunion circuit – virtually every year, there’s some word that they’re “really going to do it this time” with enthusiastic quotes from Jimmy Page and/or John Paul Jones – the lone holdout has been Robert Plant. With the setlist on Plant’s current tour with the Sensational Space Shifters made up of about a third Zeppelin songs, along with a few Delta blues covers that would have sounded right at home on LZ III, one wonders why he’s so hesitant to play those songs with the original string section in front of a million more people for ten million times more money. But while Plant can’t escape “the other band” as referred to them onstage at the Shrine, he seems to require the freedom to re-conceive old ideas in a way that audiences shelling out for a historic reunion probably wouldn’t approve of.

Much of the vintage material was played relatively straight. The opening “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” and the set-closing “Whole Lotta Love” were suitably stomping rockers, and acoustic treatments of “Friends”, “Going To California” and “Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp” retained the gentle, hypnotic glow of the Zeppelin recordings. But “Black Dog” was unrecognizable without the lyrics, reshaped as a psychedelic porch hoedown built around an exotic riff from Gambian musician Juldeh Camara. And the lead-in to “Rock And Roll” got a techno makeover courtesy of Massive Attack keyboardist John Baggott, phasing over an ominous half-speed groove. Except for “In The Mood”, the show skipped over Plant’s eighties solo hits, which can’t have been a disappointment for many people in attendance.

The band, made up primarily of players from the Bristol scene, seems comfortable stretching into any direction Plant wishes to take them, and some of the newer songs and covers head even more directly into places both world-music and modern electronica. It’s a treacherous path for an old rocker, one missed step and you risk looking like either Sting or Don Henley, trying too hard to show you’re down with the new world.  For the most part, the updates worked, and the best ones kept the show from approaching celebrity karaoke status. Plant himself is singing very well, with grit and enthusiasm, and if a few tinkering with the formula are all it takes to keep him this tuned-in, maybe he’s right to steer clear of questionable reunions.

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals opened the show with a set that seemed designed for star-making, a showcase for our Next Big Thing. Potter’s voice is excellent, her vision wide-ranging, her band top-notch, her performance skills finely honed. Flashes of Adele, Janis Joplin, Stevie Nicks, Ann Wilson, PJ Harvey, even Zeppelin themselves appeared. I would have no trouble recommending her to anyone who thinks they might like something like that. It’s something I can tell, objectively, is very well-made and that the singer has that “it” quality – I can see her doing that same set at the Superbowl. And yet I have a hard time mustering up any enthusiasm for any particular thing she did. Given the right song, I could see her shooting as high as stars can go. But for now, it’s pleasurable, well-made music that leaves no lasting impression beyond its undeniable professionalism.

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