Led Zeppelin must have stunned the world when they hit the scene in the late 1960s, dropping heavy, guitar-driven rock into a comparably mellow music world. Founding singer Robert Plant doesn’t enjoy that element of surprise anymore, for his songs now rest atop the pantheon of rock ’n’ roll history. But the tireless, 66-year-old still manages to keep concerts of songs everyone knows quite energetic and entertaining, as seen on Sunday night at the Santa Barbara Bowl.
The evening opened with a rousing set of 1950s-style rhythm & blues rock from J.D. McPherson, whose hour-long set fired up the wandering-in crowd, especially what must be the Oklahoma rocker’s biggest fan in the second row. Though his brand of toe-tapping rock may be best suited for a greaser-friendly soda shoppe or Austin honky-tonk than a large arena, McPherson’s mastery of the stage and his talented band promises a future to be watched.
Right at 8:15 p.m., Plant emerged in a silky, mauve-colored shirt, and claimed while waving his extremely large hands that the Santa Barbara Bowl was one of his favorite venues, along with Berlin and Marrakech. He also revealed that the concert would feature tunes new and old, but in possibly unfamiliar ways — you know, he joked, like a Bob Dylan concert. As the moon rose over the sycamore and oak trees into a lightly building marine layer, Plant then rolled out the same exact playlist that he’s been using for most of the current tour.
And that was perfectly fine, as his blend of mostly Led Zep songs (“Black Dog,” “Going to California,” “The Lemon Song,” and “Whole Lotta Love,” among others) and a few of his newer solo tunes (“Rainbow,” “Spoonful,” etc.) thoroughly pleased the crowd. But they were far from exact covers of his famous hits — Plant and his high-powered Sensational Space Shifters band mixed up the tempos and soundscapes, thanks often to Juldeh Camara, who played a one-string riti, an instrument that looked like a bow and arrow from his native Gambia.
Perhaps most refreshing was Plant’s open recognition of his own elder statesman status and gentle rousing of the crowd’s age, joking that it was like the movie Cocoon. Toward the end of the very good, albeit never surprising or particularly revelatory, show, he shouted, “You old-timers can really rock!” Right back at ya, Mr. Plant.