Robert Plant joked early in Monday’s set that folks at Wolf Trap should be prepared for a night of “soft rock and REO Speedwagon covers.”
Nothing that followed was too soft, unless you count Plant’s fairly laid-back 1983 solo single, “In the Mood,” and there were no REO reprises. But Plant’s amazing set was indeed loaded with plenty of covers, rendered in ways both retro and fresh, most of them being tunes made famous by the outfit Plant once sang for, Led Zeppelin.
That band broke up after drummer John Bonham’s 1980 death, and the survivors (Plant, guitarist Jimmy Page and bassist John Paul Jones) have since appeared together only a handful of times. Other than a Manny Pacquiao/Floyd Mayweather prizefight, a Zeppelin reunion tour might be the most-sought-after cultural event on the planet. But Plant has thus far turned down all pleas to join Page and Jones for what would likely be a billion-dollar tour. Demand for their material, in any fashion, remains sturdy enough to keep even all-girl (Lez Zeppelin) and reggae (Dread Zeppelin) tribute bands as international touring acts. The market also allows Plant, the closest you can get to the real thing, to hit the road fronting combos of younger musicians and play before crowds as large and appreciative as the one that packed the Vienna amphitheater.
Plant, who calls his current lineup of comparatively anonymous players the Sensational Space Shifters, couldn’t have worked harder, sounded better or had more fun than he appeared to be having throughout the 90-minute-plus set. During a long acoustic guitar solo on “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” an old folk song that Zep added the Led to back in the late 1960s, Plant stared at his bandmate’s fretwork and swayed along to every note, seemingly lost in the music. Just as the band kicked back into the heavy jam that everybody with a classic-rock station in their market must be familiar with, he booted his microphone stand skyward and grabbed it midair, a stage move he’d perfected early into his rock-god reign more than four decades ago. He did a hippie-dippy hand jive routine throughout “In the Mood.” A new and original tune, “Tin Pan Valley,” opened with techno touches before Plant directed his bands to ratchet things up to the hammer-of-the-gods gear in the chorus.
Zeppelin was among the first hard-rock acts to embrace world beat, and on this tour Plant has recast “Black Dog,” one of the hardest-rocking tracks in the Zep catalogue, as a tribal jam featuring Gambian multi-instrumentalist Juldeh Camara soloing on a ritti, a one-stringed African violin.
During a teasing intro to “Whole Lotta Love,” Plant mused about all the folks who could benefit from the lewd form of attention spoken of in the song, and with a big smile said, “Granddaddy need it, too!” just before the band delivered the beautiful bombast most fans came for. “What Is and What Should Never Be” wasn’t world-beaten up, either. Dave Smith, the baby-faced drummer, was much more of a tapper than a pounder, but occasionally the youngster conjured the thunderous backbeat that Bonham typically served up.
During Plant’s encore of “Rock and Roll,” he wailed, “Carry me back, baby, where I come from.” That’s where most of the folks at Wolf Trap hoped Plant would carry them, too. And on this night, he sure did.
McKenna is a freelance writer.