Looking like some kind of Olympic god who descended from a misty mountaintop, Robert Plant landed at the Orpheum Theatre on Thursday and declared that no song remains the same.
When he deigned to dip into the Led Zeppelin catalog, he re-imagined his old works. But that's been the story throughout his solo career ever since Zeppelin crashed after the death of drummer John Bonham in 1980.
But on this tour, Plant had a different vibe, especially compared to his last Twin Cities concert in 2011, when he was backed by the Band of Joy, featuring Americans Buddy Miller, Darrell Scott and Patty Griffin. This time, Plant was supported by the Sensational Space Shifters, his all-British band of six years.
The music felt more romantic than mystical, more jam-band than genre-blending, more fun than satisfying.
At 69, with his lion-like mane in a man bun, Plant was friendly, talking about having played at the Orpheum before. He thanked the sellout crowd for coming out in this weather in "the land of ice and snow," echoing a lyric from Zep's "Immigrant Song."
Plant's opening number, "New World" from his new album "Carry Fire," could be an update of that 1970 Zep tune; but that song was about Vikings and the new piece is vague, fitting for these times, heightened in concert by glistening guitars.
The first four selections on Wednesday came from the two albums Plant has made with the Space Shifters. Fueled by rudimentary drums, rock guitar riffs and fascinating rhythms, "Turn It Up" found Plant singing in his midrange. On the ensuing "May Queen," a musical meeting of Middle Eastern and West African guitars, Plant made it clear that his voice is more about nuance than forcefulness these days. No one seemed to complain.
Like Paul Simon, Plant pushes forward, learning about new sounds from around the world and assimilating them into his music. He doesn't ignore the past, but just reinvents it.
And that was OK with the fans, who responded loudest to Led Zeppelin songs. The first line of Zep's "Going to California" drew a wild reaction as Plant played this acoustic classic for the first time on this current U.S. tour. (Other cities got "Misty Mountain Top" instead.) Moreover, Plant suddenly seemed more intense, with the Zep material requiring the Space Shifters to play with more precision compared to the deliciously organic looseness of their recordings.
Another Zep highlight was a tremendous treatment of "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You," the folk song made famous by Joan Baez and heard on Zeppelin's first album in 1969. Thursday's performance was deeply emotional, with Plant unleashing high notes (embellished by echo effects) and guitarist Liam Tyson providing a flamenco flurry in the middle of this over-the-top blues song. This tune was the musicality of Plant in a nutshell.
Of course, the encore was devoted to Zeppelin — "Whole Lotta Love" with Plant struggling for his high notes, mixed with the fiddle-fueled sea shanty "Santianna." Odd but crowd-pleasing.
The fans warmed up to plenty of non-Zep songs. The ever-adventurous Plant dusted off "Little Maggie," a ditty from 1929, and dressed it up with banjo, oud and a burbling keyboard EDM-style solo.
The earthy Americana reading of "Please Read My Letter" was closer to Plant 2007's version with Alison Krauss than the one he did with Jimmy Page, his old Zep partner, in their duo days.
The best non-Zep number was "Carry Fire." Built around the Middle Eastern twang of guitarist Justin Adams, the piece combined the romantic with the mystical, talking about finding love in the Promised Land. And that's what you can hope for at a Robert Plant concert these days.