Sunday, June 25, 2006

Robert Plant: Master of the Universe

As a fan of late ‘60s psychedelic music, I’ve read a lot about the band Love, but for some reason, I’ve never heard a single one of their songs. Love seems to be one of those bands that were the shit in their day, revered by critics but not quite popular enough to have staying power once the pop scene moved on to the next big thing. In their brief heyday, Love were bigger than The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and The Grateful Dead, but all three of those bands (and a lot more) soon surpassed them in popularity once the record labels cashed in on the budding West Coast psychedelic scene. Nevertheless, Love remains an important footnote in musical history, often cited as an inspiration for many of the great rock musicians of the last forty years.

Two days ago, I learned that there was a big benefit show at The Beacon Theater for Love frontman Arthur Lee. Apparently Lee is battling “acute lymphoblastic leukemia,” which doesn’t sound fun. He’s been receiving chemotherapy treatments and may be getting a bone marrow transplant in the near future, all without any health insurance. This benefit was going to raise money for his escalating health costs, which wouldn’t be an issue if America had universal health care. On the other hand, should our government really be following Jesus’ teachings in helping the poor and downtrodden? After all, doesn’t the Statue of Liberty say, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, and let them entertain us, work essential jobs for laughably low wages, and then die painful deaths as we swim in our money bin”?

Anyway, the benefit lineup included Flashy Python & The Body Snatchers (featuring Alec Ounsworth from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!), Garland Jefferies, Johnny Echols, Yo La Tengo, Nils Lofgren, Ian Hunter, and the one and only Robert Plant. Unfortunately, the pre-show publicity was poor and the promoter out-priced his audience by charging in excess of $100 for tickets, so sales were very slow…so slow that the promoter was forced to turn to papering services to fill the theater with warm bodies. I’m a member of one of these papering services, so I was more than happy to nab a pair of tickets for 9 bucks total. My ticket money wouldn’t go to Arthur Lee, so I made a donation to the collection box inside.

I called a friend of mine, who I knew would dig this show, and he had three freebies to unload. It’s not often that it’s a challenge to get rid of three free tickets to see Robert Plant, but that’s how it is during a New York summer, where there are countless competing free gigs every night. After I picked up my tickets at the venue, I could have actually grabbed numerous extras, but I didn’t see anyone outside who was even looking for a ticket! It was a nightmare for the Beacon scalpers, and I felt really really sorry for them. Sniff.

Rather than catch the beginning of what was sure to be a long show, I opted to meet up with my friends for some beers at Dive 75. We finally entered the Beacon around 9:15, and the crew was in the midst of one of many laborious set changes. People around us said that this particular change had lasted close to thirty minutes, as we had missed Yo La Tengo and that Python act (neither received good reviews from those seated nearby). Eventually, Gavin DeGraw made an unexpected appearance to play solo piano. He played Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and then he did another tune. Maybe he played his “Chariot” song. I don’t know, and I didn’t really care because his name wasn’t Robert Plant.

When his set ended, Q104 DJ Ken Dashow came onstage to let us know there would be another break to get the stage setup. This break was just stupid. Was there even a stage manager for this gig? Roadies came on to tinker with a guitar amp that was on the opposite site of the stage from the piano. Since they made no noise, this work could have easily been done while DeGraw was playing. That’s why you mix soloists with bands on a large bill. It’s called planning, people.

Finally, Ryan Adams and the Cardinals came out and played for about 20-30 minutes. The sound at my seats in the right side of the balcony wasn’t so good, and their set sounded like a big pile of mush. I haven’t seen much of Ryan Adams, but I do know some of his songs, and I wasn’t too impressed with this performance. He did seem sober, so maybe that was the problem.

Guess what? Their set ended, and we took another friggin’ break, but this time Dashow came onstage to inform us that this break would be a genuine intermission. Oh, goodie! An extra-long break! Dashow also said, “And then we’ll back and move right on through until the end.” Everyone clapped at the thought of seeing more music and less roadies.

The setbreak ended, and Dashow introduced the band for the second set. I didn’t know any of them, but they all proved to be capable, if not noteworthy. (Dashow did say the drummer played for Wings, and I’m not sure if that was a compliment or an insult.) I have been told that this was Ian Hunter's band, but I'm not really sure that Ian Hunter has a regular touring band, so the jury's out on that one. After the band intro, Nils Lofgren played a three or four song set. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t get into his bland brand of Jersey rock. He closed with “Because the Night,” which was tolerable. You’ll never guess what happened next.

We took a break.

Yes, even though the only musician changing was the frontman, everyone had to leave the stage for another interminable break. The roadies never came onstage. Nothing was changed. We just had to sit and wait. In hopes of lighting a flare under the crew’s asses, I yelled, “Arthur Lee is dying while we wait! If you don’t hustle up, he’ll never get a transplant!”

Ian Hunter was up next, and finally, someone stepped up and was ready to rock. He opened with “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” which made my Great White-loving friend’s day. I especially enjoyed it when he strutted to the front of the stage past the monitors and struck a true rock star straddle pose down center as he played pedestrian rhythms while a lesser known guitarist discreetly played a solo in the shadow of his massive ego. The rest of 25 minute set included some boogieing rockers, with Hunter switching between piano and acoustic guitar. Finally, he closed with the Mott The Hoople chestnut, “All The Young Dudes.” A good old fashioned audience singalong emerged, and everyone was finally having fun.

And then there was yet another break.

This time, they needed to clear the stage left keyboard, but in all honesty, it wasn’t in anyone’s way. Perhaps they wanted the stage clear out of fear of Robert Plant unleashing some wild karate kicks, but honestly, it was yet another unnecessary changeover, especially considering the fact that we were now sitting at midnight with a 12:30 curfew looming ahead.

Then the big moment arrived, and Dashow introduced the final performer by describing him as “a man who needs no introduction.” As the band played the atmospheric opening tones of “In the Evening,” the entire theater was transformed into a temple. The guru calmly strode onstage and preached to his flock. The flock rose out of their seats and responded with enthusiasm. Within seconds, Commander Robert Plant had lifted Airship Beacon into the stratosphere.

It was clear from the get-go that we were in the presence of a bonafide rock ‘n roll god. He was in phenomenal shape, especially when you consider the fact that he’s 58, and his voice sounded perfect. The deity was so cool and slick, kicking the mic stand up in the air to punctuate the cymbal crash and moving like a snake charmer to coax some love out of each guitar solo. As my friend, Jessica, said, “What do you think goes through the mind of the unknown guitarist when Robert Plant gets in his face and yells ‘Do it! Do it!’?” This man was unleashing signature maneuvers that you just can’t learn at Rock ‘N Roll Fantasy Camp. Plant certainly has a PhD in showmanship and a master’s degree in charisma.

After a killer rendition of “What Is and What Should Never Be,” Mr. Plant invited Ian Hunter back onstage, remarking how this was the first time the two ever had the opportunity to sing together. Unfortunately, good ol’ Ian was lost backstage, probably doing tequila shots off of someone’s ass. Plant kept the audience laughing during the delay before they finally changed gears and started into a unique rendition of “For What It’s Worth.” In the middle of the tune, Hunter wandered onstage absentmindedly before realizing where he was and then running back off. For a few minutes, Hunter’s handler tried to convince him to go back onstage, but he was very reluctant. Eventually, he strolled onstage to play his acoustic guitar in the background. Unfortunately, no one told Hunter that he was completely unplugged and inaudible. Plant’s desired vocal duet finally materialized when he and Hunter teamed up for a great turn on the Everly Brothers’ “When Will I Be Loved.”

Speaking of love, the most unique aspect of Plant’s set was his genuine tribute to Arthur Lee and Love. As far as I could tell, he was the first artist of the night to even mention Arthur Lee, and he spoke about Love in reverential tones. Apparently Love and Arthur Lee were major influences on him when he was a young lad, and it showed in his setlist, which was heavy on Love covers. He brought out Love’s original guitarist, Johnny Echols, who wailed away on some of Love’s psychedelic tunes of yesteryear, including “A House Is Not a Motel,” “Seven & Seven Is,” and an extremely trippy take on “Hey Joe.” Beyond that, Plant seemed to be making “love” the theme of his set, also pulling out a great cover of “Can’t Help Falling In Love.” This last number could have been incredibly cheesy, as not many people can pull off an Elvis song, but Plant’s vocals were amazingly sincere. At the risk of sounding like a big wuss, I will go out on a limb and call his rendition touching.

“Ramble On” was a killer end to the set. With dueling acoustic and electric guitars, moody keyboards, grooving bass, and thunderous drums, the five-piece backing band pulled this song off in a way that must have been beyond Zep’s technical capabilities back in the day. (Within seconds, I’ll surely be bombarded by Zeppelin fans touting some killer version of “Ramble On” from ’74.) This song was really a microcosm of the entire set, mixing gentle tones and balls-to-the-wall rock. It’s long been one of my favorite Zep tunes because of its odd combination of rockstar bravura and nerdy Tolkien obsession. Plant simply wailed, and the backup band was up to the task, tearing the crap out of the explosive chorus. Fists were pumping in the loge, and it was one massive finale at 1:15.

Plant offered some heartfelt thanks to the crowd, as well as his backing band whom he had first met a few days ago, claiming they were the first American band he’d ever sung with. Then he and his cohorts exited the stage. Because we had shattered the assumed 12:30 curfew, the houselights came up instantly. The universal sign for “Go the fuck home, people” was on, and the crowd began to exit, sated from a stirring set from the man who made zucchinis and tight pants go together like peanut butter and jelly. Dashow came onstage to ask for applause “one more time” to thank the artists. The audience enthusiastically responded, and then Plant proved his status as a God of Rock. I’ve seen a lot of concerts, but I’ve never seen the houselights come back down for a final number long after curfew. Sure enough, the man walked back onstage, and the houselights faded to black. People started running back to their seats. The preacher had one more sermon to deliver.

There are countless Led Zeppelin tunes that would make for a great encore, but after such a thrilling and emotional set, there was only one choice, and Plant nailed it: “Thank You.” Words really won’t do it justice, but this was one heartfelt capper to a riveting performance. Everything about his delivery was so genuine, and he had the entire crowd wrapped around his pinky finger. A silence swept the room as he sang to us, and when he closed by blowing kisses to the audience, I thought, “If Robert Plant had a pair of tits, I’d be in love.”

Like I said, I’ve seen a lot of live music in my relatively brief time on this planet, but it’s been a long while since I’ve been so moved by one musician. His performance and persona were just one captivating dichotomy: masculine and feminine, lustful and emotional, blue collar and intellectual, confident and humble. Robert Plant was all of these contrasts rolled into one, and he radiated this incredible warmth that felt so inviting. I guess I was most taken aback by his Eastern, selfless attitude and true appreciation of the audience. I figured that the man who once referred to himself as a “Golden God” would just show up, squeeze his ego through the door, punch the clock, rock out, and then quickly get the Hell outta there, but he seemed to be honestly thankful for this opportunity to pay homage to one of his boyhood idols. I exited the theater bug-eyed and shaken, as chills ran up and down my spine. This wasn’t at all what I had expected, but Robert Plant definitely touched something inside of the audience. As I looked around, I realized I wasn’t the only one who had been moved. A lot of people sported this strange look of shell-shocked joy, and the crowd quietly sauntered out of the theatre. One of my friends asked me if I wanted to grab a drink, but we decided that it was unnecessary. I was riding on a natural high, and I just wanted to go home and reflect on the awesome power of Robert Plant, messenger of love.

Robert Plant 6-23-06

In The Evening
Bummer in the Summer
What Is and What Should Never Be
The Old Man
For What It's Worth
When Will I Be Loved (with Ian Hunter)
A House Is Not A Motel
Can't Help Falling In Love
Hey Joe
Seven & Seven Is
Ramble On

encore: Thank You

Some pictures are posted here: