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ELVIS, I’M SCARED: A Few Thoughts About Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant, Gettin’ Old & Fixin’ To Die

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Robert Plant @ The Mann Center, Philadelphia, September 17th by CHRIS SIKICH

meavatar2BY JONATHAN VALANIA In the days of my youth I was told what it means to be a man by an Elvis impersonator. This happened at a picnic grove in the blackened heart of Pennsyltucky — Hellertown, to be exact, just a few towns over from my ancestral home — in the final decade of the 20th Century. Truth be told, this Elvis impersonator wasn’t very good — are any of them, really? isn’t that actually the whole point? — and as the keg-fueled crowd grew restless and bored his guitar player turned to the faux King of Rock n’ Roll and stage whispered: “Elvis, I’m scared.” This was obviously internal band code for ‘let’s get the fuck out of here’ but to me those words seemed to speak to so many things beyond “let’s blow this clambake, Elvis, the jig’s up.”

Those words have stuck with me ever since and in the fullness of time it has occurred to me that they explain why America simply could not let go of Elvis, why so many were so certain his death was a hoax and he was living a new life in disguise, self-exiled to the existential witness protection program in the sky, or some such. The supermarket tabloids — which back then, as now, held up a funhouse mirror to the collective American unconscious — were rife with surrealistic posthumous Elvis sightings: On flying saucers, riding the Loch Ness monster, or palling around with Bigfoot in the high rainyland of the Pacific Northwest. But why? Why can’t we just admit he’s dead? I’ve thought long and hard about this over the years and there are many answers to this question but I think the best one is: Because it was easier to lie to yourself that Elvis would live forever than confront the terrible truth that the King was dead and we’re finally on our own.

When Elvis died in 1977 — on the toilet, straight to heaven —  Robert Plant, the libidinous, bangled and bare-chested rock god of Led Zeppelin, was the newly crowned King of Rock n’ Roll. In the interest of full disclosure, let the record show I go way back with those guys, all the way back to the day 12-year-old me bought a Led Zep three-quarter sleeve concert jersey on the Atlantic City boardwalk, emblazoned with the badass Swan Song logo of the inexplicably naked, angel-winged man ascending to heaven, and discernibly improved my social standing come the start of seventh grade a month later. Back to that warm hormonal night at high school dance where, in the soft awkward embrace of my first crush, I learned the hard way that “Stairway To Heaven” starts out as a great slow dance song, but it does not end like one.

By the time I got to Zeppelin they had long since disbanded in the wake John “Bonzo” Bonham, Zep’s monster truck of a drummer, asphyxiating on his own vomit after an epic bout of binge drinking, as was the style of the day, effectively dethroning Robert Plant. Banished from the kingdom, Plant went onto mixed success as a solo artist, dabbling in nouveau rockabilly, dubious puns (Now And Zen, “The Big Log” ) and poodle-esque Flashdance haircuts. Yeah, the ‘80s were a helluva drug. But at the turn of the century, after a clutch of forgettable albums of watered-down AOR and epically bad cover art in the two preceding decades, he literally let his hair down, re-discovered his pre-Zep roots and, in the process, got his mojo back.

The resulting album, 2002’s Dreamland, was an old-timey sepia-toned cover song compendium that revisited the beloved tuneage of his gloriously misspent youth — West Coast psychedelia (Moby Grape’s “Skip’s Song,” Tim Buckley’s “Song To A Siren”), Delta blues (Bukka White’s “Fixin’ To Die”), and coffeehouse folk (Dylan’s “One More Cup Of Coffee”). His mining of spectral Americana hit the motherlode with 2007’s Grammy-winning Raising Sand, a lightning-in-a-bottle collaboration with seraphim-voiced bluegrass siren Alison Krauss and alchemical producer T Bone Burnett. It is, arguably, among the very best things he’s ever done, Zep included. Better than Presence and In Through The Out Door combined.

I will fight you over this.

In 2010, he re-activated Band Of Joy, his pre-Zep band, if only in name, for another prismatic clutch of heartfelt covers and choice nugs from his personal stash (Low, Los Lobos, Richard Thompson, Townes Van Zandt) co-produced by another roots-rock alchemist, Nashville fixture Buddy Miller. In 2014, after an extended stateside exile in Greil Marcus’ Invisible Republic he repatriated back to Old Blighty, releasing two albums of self-penned and self-produced material, 2014’s Lullabye And The Ceaseless Roar and 2017’s Carry Fire. While these latter day albums have their moments (most notably Carry Fire’s “The May Queen,” a mesmerizing forgery of The Rolling Stones’ “Factory Girl”) they wander in and out of grace. After repeated listens, the most obvious takeaway is this: Robert Plant needs a producer at the console riding the fader, somebody who will tell him when all that glitters is not gold, be it T Bone Burnett, Buddy Miller or Jimmy Page, who, lest we forget, produced all those deathless Zep albums.

(Please Lord, I don’t ask for much, let it be T-Bone.)

I was lucky enough to see Robert Plant perform live three times in the 21st Century: at the Electric Factory in 2002 in support of Dreamland, backed by The Strange Sensation; at the Mann in 2008 in support of Raising Sand, duetting with Alison Krauss and backed by a magic band of sidemen hand-curated by musical director/guitarist T-Bone Burnett; and again in 2011 at the Tower in support of Band Of Joy, with a backing band led by Buddy Miller and featuring his then-squeeze/sweetheart of the rodeo Patty Griffin. All three of these shows were, I can say without fear of exaggeration, transcendental affairs.

Sadly, the same could not be said for Robert Plant’s performance at the Mann Tuesday night, where the now 71-year-old golden god kicked off his ongoing U.S. tour backed by The Sensational Space Shifters. After a rousing and righteous performance by co-headliners Nathaniel Ratliffe & The Night Sweats (Ratliffe is arguably the most convincing bearded, Buddha-bellied white R&B shouter since Van fucking Morrison got his love light on with Them at the Maritime Hotel in Dublin in 1964), and an equally rousing film clip of wise-beyond-her-years 16-year-old Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg condemning cowardly and corrupt do-nothing politicians at the 2018 UN Climate Change Conference in Poland, Plant took the stage to the slashing strains of the Link Wray classic “Rumble.” Either he’s turning into Mark Hamill or vice versa, but the late-period Jedi master vibe is unmistakable. Dressed in black leather pants, his wizened, whiskered visage framed by his trademark leonine mane, Plant stood stock still, barring the occasional half-Elvis move or lumbering jig.

Somewhat surprisingly for a man who Scrooged the recently proposed Led Zeppelin reunion tour little Jimmy Page wanted so badly for Christmas, Plant opened with a fairly tepid “What Is And What Should Never Be” that provided little beyond the depressing confirmation that the stentorian banshee wail of yore is now but a dull roar. It was official from the get go: there would be no hashipe hobbit hole sex magick tonight. Or ever again, for that matter.

For the rest of the night he would alternate curiously underwhelming remakes of early Zep classics with deep cuts from the last two solo albums. Sort of a one-for-you-one-for-me dealio. Now, I would be lying to you if I denied that deep down, like everybody else at the Mann, I wanted nothing more than to hear Robert Plant sing Led Zeppelin songs all night. But be careful what you wish for.

I don’t know if the band was under-rehearsed (in fairness it was the first night of the tour, but then again that’s no longer a viable excuse given the extortionate ticket prices these days) or the sound man was still figuring out his game, but the house mix was a maddeningly guitar-less study in subtraction and anti-climax, mostly vocals and thudding snare, that rendered some of the most def riffage of the 20th Century inaudible or inert. I do know the Zep re-arrangements were trite and dishwater-dull.  I’m not really sure “Black Dog” wants to be a Celtic strut, or that “What Is And What Should Never” wants to be jazzy, or that the audience should be asked to sing the chorus to “Ramble On” when the whole reason we were gathered there that night was to hear Robert fucking Plant sing it. Even the murder ballads (Bukka White’s “Fixin’ To Die,” Leadbelly’s “Gallows Pole”) wer writ harmless and the only thing that “Battle Of Evermore” proved is that the Space Shifters’ Lillie Mae may be a fine fiddler but she’s no Sandy Denny.

But let’s face it, even Sandy Denny isn’t Sandy Denny anymore. As we wind on down the road (sorry, had to), none of us are who we used to be. There’s been a lot of water under a lot of bridges since “Stairway To Heaven” turned out the lights at the high school dance. There’s more sand at the bottom of the hourglass than there is at the top. The forests don’t echo with laughter as much as they used to,  and besides they’re all infested with deer ticks anyway. And let’s face it, it has been a long time since I rock n’ rolled. So maybe it’s me, not them. Maybe I’m just a cranky old fart who came to the Mann with the unrealistic expectation that the songs would remain the same. That we all would. Of course, that is folly. We are all at the mercy of the planned obsolescence encoded deep in our DNA. In the end, I guess I’m really just mad at myself for getting old. Or not old, technically, but I can see it from here. And I’ll be honest with you Elvis, I’m scared.

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