During his concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl on Friday night, rock ‘n’ roll legend Robert Plant joked, “Welcome to another comfortable evening of soft rock.” Thankfully, this was not the case, with Plant revisiting songs from the Led Zeppelin catalog (and let’s be honest, this is what people wanted to hear) plus some rockers from his post-Zep career.
Most of the Zeppelin songs were pretty faithful to the original recordings, and hearing these was almost a religious experience to many in the crowd, including myself.
The opener, “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,” kicked things off nicely, with a bit of added flamenco flair. “Going to California,” a particularly appropriate song for this tour stop, had acoustic guitar and mandolin accompaniment as for the original. Likewise, “Friends” and “What Is and What Should Never Be” used the well-known Led Zeppelin arrangements.
The main set closer, “Whole Lotta Love,” mixed things up a bit, starting out slow and bluesy before hitting its driving riff. In the middle it cutely included a bit of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?”
On the other hand, “Black Dog” was radically reworked to have a much more worldly rather than riffy feel, thanks to the contributions of Gambian musician Juldeh Camara on ritti, a one-stringed fiddle. Camara also made prominent contributions to the last song of the night, the raucous “Rock and Roll.”
In one big difference from his Zeppelin days, Plant didn’t attempt the really high notes — for example, the “wrath of the Gods” part of “Going to California” and the “Catch the wind, see us spin” chorus of “What Is and What Should Never Be.” But this is forgiveable; the man isn’t in his early 20s anymore. And, heck, even when I was in my 20s I couldn’t sing like that, nor could many others, for that matter.
In addition to Camara, who also played African banjo and sang some vocals, Plant’s band, the Sensational Shape Shifters, consisted of Justin Adams (guitar), “Skin” Tyson (guitar), Billy Fuller (bass), John Baggott (keyboards), and Dave Smith (drums). The first three were along for the 2005 Robert Plant & the Strange Sensation album, Mighty Rearranger, which was represented by “Tin Pan Valley,” “Another Tribe” and “The Enchanter.”
There was also a visit to Plant’s early solo career with “In The Mood,” and an interesting electronic-driven cover of the blues classic “Spoonful.”
The evening’s opener, Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, lived up to their reputation as one of the best live bands out there, starting with an energetic performance of “Medicine.” Potter can belt it out like the best of them, including the young Robert Plant, and showed herself to be in the same league as Grace Slick with a smoking cover of “White Rabbit.” Potter’s organ work added a vintage vibe to several songs, but I’m partial to the rocking songs like “Sugar,” for which she complemented her sparkly white robe with the ultimate accessory, a Gibson Flying V guitar.
I have to point out a missed opportunity, though. Wouldn’t it have been great to have Potter join Plant for a rendition of “The Battle for Evermore?” Oh well, maybe next time.
Speaking of next time, Plant seems to like playing the Bowl, with concerts so far in 1993, 2002, 2005, 2008, 2011 and now 2013. Some lucky people might even remember Led Zeppelin playing at Earl Warren Showgrounds in 1969. I’m guessing he’ll always be welcome in these parts.
Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You
In the Mood
Tin Pan Valley
Going to California
Please Read the Letter
Funny in My Mind (I Believe I’m Fixin’ to Die)
What Is and What Should Never Be
Whole Lotta Love
Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down
Rock and Roll
— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.