Robert Plant Presents the Sensational Space Shifters
Grace Potter and the Nocturnals
June 29, 2013
Greek Theatre, Berkeley
Better than:Playing those scratchy old Zeppelin records.
Grace Potter says the most star-struck moment of her life was when she first met Robert Plant. The story goes that she got so nervous she turned into a lustful groupie, blurting out what she would do to him if she got him in a room alone. She doesn't remember what happened next, except that he was gracious and a pro and said he knew her music. Later Potter got the call to open a few of the West Coast dates for Plant's new band, the Sensational Space Shifters. Now it would be fans' turn to swoon.
The charismatic rocker made it clear from the start of her brief, powerful set Saturday that her job was to fire the audience into a fever for the headlining act. To that end, she gave us her trademark headbanger girl routine, thrashing on her Flying V and flouncing on the stage like a toddler in a sandbox. When she opened her mouth wide, her voice soared on angel wings. Potter combines ragged hard rock and blues with a polished contemporary pop sound. It's like roadhouse glamor, the quintessence of blue-eyed soul. Her bandmates, as always, ripped it up on their best dirty-sweet tunes ("Sugar," "Nothing but the Water," "Paris"). Their joy was contagious. Potter and crew easily won over the mostly middle-aged audience members, who seemed to lose their minds when she kicked off her sparkly heels and bounced barefoot to an outsized take on the Jefferson Airplane classic, "White Rabbit." She dropped a sweet shout-out to a pair of honeymooners in the front row (whom she had met at her hotel), and signed a homemade Grace Potter & the Nocturnals banner for another couple, who looked like they were going to pee their pants in bliss.
The crowd was primed for Robert Plant. We've never before heard such sighs and gasps from an audience. Men and women alike were clearly awed to be so close to an icon of rock's gilded past. Plant has admitted his respect for legends, and he's aware of his own status as one of rock's preeminent vocalists. And so he worked it at this performance. He busted out his old-school moves on the mic (clinging with heart and soul) and its stand (jousting his way to Valhalla), framed by a massive backdrop of his 20-year-old sex-symbol visage, all mystic-hippie lion's mane and bedroom eyes. Sure, there's a good deal of vanity in this, but we like to think of it as a meta evocation of the rock 'n' roll dream -- the rock of ages, if you will -- rather than just an ego boost for a man now eligible for the senior discount at Denny's.
Here's the thing: Plant the singer is ageless. At 65, he is still a commanding presence on stage (think the resilience of Iggy Pop, not the propped-up corpse of Bob Dylan). His voice is strong, his attitude playful, his energy magnetic. From the luminescence of the concert opener, "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You," a majestic track from Zeppelin's 1969 debut album, to the gospel haunt of "Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down," a standout from his last CD with Band of Joy, Plant approaches melody with the wisdom of maturity. He stays within his vocal range, which these day is at least an octave down from his youthful falsetto, and he uses the effects rack as an instrument to bounce off of like primordial cave walls. The epic boomerang sound was nothing short of magical.
New arrangements of radio-worn Led Zep tunes like "Whole Lotta Love" and "Rock 'n' Roll" were fresh and invigorating. Plant's half-dozen accompanists, masterful players as you would expect, brilliantly matched acoustic, electric, and exotic instruments. Nearly every song took the listener on a journey. "Fixin' to Die," a Bukka White classic, roiled from a trippy synth intro to a chugging slide-guitar shuffle. Gambian native Juldeh Camara -- who brought the ritti (one stringed violin), kologo (banjo), and talking drum to the mix -- was a particularly welcome addition to the otherwise traditional Western instrumentation of guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards.
Deep blues haunted the entire set. That's where Plant started with Zeppelin, and it's how much of his audience will always hear him. But there are also global folk-music references and heavy space grooves in his sound, which is no less a magical experience today than it was when he used to play half-naked on the stage.