Review of July 19, 2005 appearance at Paramount Theatre–Oakland, CA
Orginally published by ign.com
by Spence D
The scene at Oakland’s historic Paramount Theatre was one of stark contrasts. Okay, not really. It was jam packed with mostly 50 something year old diehards running the gamut from bespeckled white collar types to long-haired hippies, many sporting ancient Led Zeppelin t-shirts that were obviously dredged up from some mothball saturated corner of their closets. There were also a fair number of juveniles in the house, many under the watchful eye of their parents. While the opening act Little Axe was playing most folks of legal drinking age were lined up at one of the venues three bars, swigging back plastic bottled Bud, wine, and mixed drinks. At roughly 9:45 a buzzer echoed through the hallways signaling that the main attraction—Robert Plant and the Strange Sensation—would be starting shortly.
The Paramount is a classic art deco theatre with a front and rear orchestra section and a three tiered balcony. The vibe down on the floor in the rear orchestra was rifled with a sense of subdued intensity. When the house lights finally went down at 9 pm and a tranced-up version of Plant and the Strange Sensation’s “Shine It All Around” began blaring from the sound system there was a sense of rare excitement that I haven’t felt at a concert in a long, long time. Older women were screaming non-stop; their male counterparts were standing in anticipation. At 9:05 the band emerged, picking up big, oval Irish drums and kicking into the recognizable lick of “No Quarter.” As the 5-piece built up the musical intensity, Plant just materialized, as if out of nowhere, his voice a little rough at the onset, the high notes seeming to be a problem as he edged into the lead verse of the Zeppelin classic. Yet as the song progressed he seemed to find his vocal equilibrium, his voice easing into the material as he warmed up to the crowd. As the song climaxed, Plant ripped the mic from the stand and promptly kicked it over.
From vintage Zep, the band riffed into “Shine It All Around,” a track off their new album Mighty Rearranger. This signaled the course of the evening, as Plant and crew would bounce between classic material and new songs for the duration of their set. Plant looked svelte, dressed in midnight blue and swaying and snaking his arms to the groove, tossing the microphone around on its chord and sashaying across the stage in a lithe shuffle. At the conclusion of this number, he looked at the crowd, bowed, and then the band lit into “Black Dog,” which they turned into a slinky, glam rock number and engaging the crowd in singing along to the end of the chorus “dreams of you all through my head…” and the “ah ah ah ah ah ah” portion. This song expertly captured what the band was all about. They weren’t so much doing covers of classic Zep, but rather changing the songs up, reworking them with a cool post-modern twist.
Then it was back to another new track, “Freedom Fries,” augmented by tribalistic rhythms and sinewy snake guitar riffage. With this number it became apparent that Plant still has it—albeit he was a little subdued on the screaming and caterwauling, but he still unleashed an intense vocal display. His swoon interplayed brilliantly with the cool, spacey synth bursts and the ever-so-slight Middle Eastern tinges on the guitar. Following this he officially addressed the audience “Oakland, California, good evening. Thanks for stepping out tonight. We’re going to play a lot of music from the past two centuries…” He went on to make some additional comments about the rich political nature that has always burbled in the Bay Area and then introduced a Bonnie Dobson protest song made famous by the area’s own Grateful Dead: “Morning Dew.” The crowd eventually settled into their seats thanks to the down-tempo, loping country bassline of the song.
While everything up to this point had been tight and involving, when the band switched gears and dropped into the acoustic guitar driven Zep classic “That’s The Way,” chills reverberated up and down my spine and tears welled up in my eyes. Yes, it was that moving. Plants voice lilted over the richly textured interaction of guitar, drums, light keyboards, and mandolin perfectly. As the weight of the moment passed and the song faded into memory, Plant began speaking about how when he was a kid he was impressed with the music that came out of the area and how you could feel the music and what it was trying to tell us. He then remarked how he and the band had learned a song especially for the San Francisco/Bay Area show and they would be honored to play it for us. With that the lights shifted to a cross beam of piercing white beams and the dove into a slow burn rendition of the Jefferson Airplane classic “White Rabbit.”
They segued brilliantly from the Summer of Love into the seminal “Hey Hey What Can I Do,” again delving into a richly layered acoustical outpouring. It was here that it became apparent that Plant and the rest of the Strange Sensation had no delusions of recreating a pure Zeppelin moment. Instead the vibe was one more of Plant and a bunch of his close friends ripping through the songs they love. With “Tin Pan Alley,” another new song, they piled on swirls of synth while Plant whisper slunk in way through the verses before the rest of the band blasted out into a surge of energy. Even though the song was raucous in its presentation, many in the crowd chose to sit this one out.
It took the rousing elements of “Heartbreaker” to bring them back to their feet, the grinding steamroller guitar riffs creating a blitz that couldn’t be ignored. Guitarist Skin even went so far as to instill this version with a rakish Mick Mars styled solo. Keeping everything at full-throttle, they launched into the title track from their album, with Plant exclaiming “That’s what we’re doing here…” implying that they weren’t covering tunes, but rather rearranging them. The song unraveled with a thick blues slide as Plant pranced in place with a head swaying swagger, the wispy smoke of the incense sticks stuck in his monitor flitting up toward the ceiling. Just when it seemed like the song was over; Plant whipped out a harmonica and began hammering away on the mouth harp with relentless fervor.
Even as the last strains of his harmonica crested, Plant paused, then introduced the next tune by saying “This is an awful tale, a sad tale, a tale you’re no doubt familiar with. It’s an old tale, a relentless tale that just won’t go away.” He paused again for effect, then let the band slide into the gently haunting “Gallows Pole.” As with all of the other acoustic Zeppelin tunes of the night, this one resounded with cool guitar, smooth rhythms and melodic keyboards that were mimicking a cross between a melodica and a squeezebox. Without even letting this tune fade, the band next kicked into the thunder road chug of “When The Levee Breaks.” What made this rearrangement so cool is that it was done as a mostly acoustic number, with stand-up bass, mandolin, background harmonies from the bassist and rhythm guitarist, and Plant’s piercing croon to top it all off. Plant ended the tune by chanting “bye bye” over and over and then at 10:23 he thanked the crowd for a great night and he and the band left the stage.
Less than five minutes passed–the crowd stomping their feet and clapping ceaselessly the whole time—before Plant and crew returned to the stage for their encore. They kicked into the blues wrangled psychedelic blitz of “The Enchanter” which fluctuated with thick wurble. Plant affected the classic rock star pose that he practically helped invent, posturing his hands as if making an offer to the heavens, spreading his legs apart in a V stance, and waving his hands in sinewy, underwater movements. The song moved from the scattered blues into trance terrain, Plant groaning, grunting, and wailing his way through and echo chorus and space noize hum.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he exclaimed after the song had ended, “It’s a new Romantic era.” He went on to remark how he and the band’s music was beat the hell out of a lot of other sh@t and were ultimately much better than any jukebox. Then he took the time to introduce all of the players: guitarist Justin Adams, drummer Clive Deamer, bassist Billy Fuller, Keyboardist John Baggott, and guitarist Skin Tyson. Then they took a minute to wheel out an amplifier that had been built by one of Robert’s neighbors back home. He had promised to take a picture of the band seated on the amp, with the audience in the background, at every show. He told the crowd to pretend that it was the amplifier’s birthday, at which point Fuller let loose with the “Happy Birthday” bassline.
Plant thanked us all for indulging the band in this “psychedelic moment” and then it was back to business as they straddled the thick crunge of “Whole Lotta Love,” Tyson using a Corona bottle to kick up some serious blues ambiance. When Plant urged the band to “gimme the bottom!” they did just that, opening up the song and turning it into a sweaty, sticky post-millennial barroom rocker. Plant followed suit, proving that he’s still got the pipes, and eventually coaxed the audience to sing along to the chorus. The song evolved into an extended, borderline self-indulgent jam consisting of synth chirps, turgid ripples of bass, talking drum all accompanied by disco ball glimmer that coated the audience in shimmering silver sprinkles.
As the crowd sang the final refrain of “Way down inside…woman…you need…love” Plant caterwauled along, while Tyson and Adams added great little licks to the mix. The song pulsed, climaxed, and Plant uttered “Let’s get out of here,” as the band spiraled the song down to a faint whisper before stopping altogether. The time was 10:50 when the band finally laid down their instruments, formed a chorus line and took a group bow. “Thanks a lot folks. It’s been a great night. See you again soon,” were the words that Plant left behind as the stage went dark and the house lights came on.
Behind me a young kid, probably no more than 14 began laughing “I can’t hear a thing! I’m totally deaf, I can’t hear a thing! This is so cool!” His mother pushed him through the crowd remarking that we’d probably endured 110 decibel levels during the show. Speaking of which, Plant and the band were tight and in good form, never letting the energy levels drop for a second. That said, the show wasn’t quite what I expected—I had visions of Plant ripping through the entire 12 tracks of the new album, scattering in a few of his more well-known older solo numbers like “In The Mood” and “Big Log” before succumbing to an encore/medley of Zeppelin tunes. In retrospect, however, what Plant and the Strange Sensation did was smart. They peppered familiar tunes throughout a set of select numbers from the new album, allowing the ancient crowd to be hit with new music while they grooved to the oldies.
Posted in sr2005 |