Say what you will about his refusal to reunite Led Zeppelin and his musical journey since that project ended: Robert Plant is and has always been a rock god. He reminded the Fillmore last night just why some people name him the best rock frontman of all time with a mixture of Zeppelin classics, solo endeavors and collaborations with others, all kissed with his current rock-heavy blend of alt-country. But first, Southern rock/blues outfit North Mississippi Allstars warmed up the crowd.
Brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson's set was heavily blues/jam-influenced, with a sound that recalled the Black Keys. Cody held down drums, with some forays into other instruments throughout the set, while Luther's rack of string instruments held six to eight different types of guitars and banjos that he picked up during the night. At 8 p.m., the venue was close to full, and they raised the energy and kept it high in anticipation of the headliner. For "Drinking Muddy Water," Luther picked up a coffee-can banjo built like a dulcimer banjo, wailing on the instrument but also giving Cody room to stretch and improvise on the drums.
"Shake" got everyone in the building moving while Luther's guitar sang along with him; when he growled, "You better shake it like it's gonna save your ass," the electricity in the room was palpable. The boys switched gears after that; Cody put down his drumsticks and picked up an acoustic guitar, and they played some gorgeous instrumental gospel- and bluegrass-influenced tunes off The Word, Luther picking up his cigar-box banjo and Cody settling a washboard over his chest that provided a skittering beat to the low, looping melody.
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The guys busted out the gospel classic "Get Right Church," imitating a train's whistle with the guitar and the chugging mechanical moving-train wheels with the drums, then immediately dropped into what sounded like a psychedelically wobbly (and barely recognizable) version of "Amazing Grace," which finished up their strong set. The brothers were fantastic, and the crowd no doubt would have fought to keep them on the stage had we not known who was coming up next.
At a little past 9 p.m., Plant walked on stage with the rest of his Band of Joy: Patty Griffin on harmonizing vocals, Buddy Miller on lead guitar, multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott, Byron House on bass and Marco Giovino on drums. Plant acknowledged the crowd's roar with raised hands, then the group launched into a rootsy, alt-country version of "Black Dog," harmonized, slowed down and funked out. The crowd was in a frenzy. Plant's signature voice has worn well over the years; he's still got the soft croon and rock-star wail down pat.
From "Black Dog," the band moved into Plant's solo territory with "Down to the Sea," the acoustic guitar lilting in a solo before the electric, bass guitar and drums came galloping back in, while Griffin's finger cymbals chimed in with a muted clash at just the right moment. Next up was "Angel Dance," from Plant's 2010 studio album with Band of Joy, carrying a slightly gypsy feel, twangy but edgy. This exemplifies what is still great -- and relevant -- about Plant's music: He creates songs that walk the line between rock and alt-country; it's more rootsy and soulful than most rock, but more edgy and precise than most country.
"This is a very closely guarded secret," Plant disclosed to the crowd before the next effort, Zeppelin's "Black Country Woman." Incorporating a banjo into the Zeppelin project has clearly changed up the arrangement, but Plant still sounds, well, just like Robert Plant.
The group effortlessly moved into more Band of Joy territory with "House of Cards" and "Monkey," which blended searing guitar lines with dreamier melodies in the background. Then Plant stepped aside for Buddy Miller, who took the microphone with "Somewhere the Trouble Don't Go," a haunting arrangement with all the best elements of country (including Plant absolutely killing it on a harmonica while Miller's vocals washed over the crowd). The band played beautifully together, and it was especially reflected in this piece, which featured a beat of perfectly timed silence before bringing the instrumentation back in for a rousing finale.
Next up was "Silver Rider," followed by Darrell Scott singing a rousing cover of Johnny Cash's "A Satisfied Mind" in a soaring gospel style. Then Scott picked up the banjo again while Plant rejoined the microphone for an American folk classic "Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down," a spine-shivering old spiritual.
Patty Griffin -- whom Plant introduced as a recent Grammy winner -- then took center stage with a cover of Big Maybelle's "Ocean of Tears," which she sang soulfully and with a touch of regret in her voice. Plant then picked the mike back up for "In the Mood," crooning "I can make you dance, I can make you sing/If you want me to" in his gorgeous voice, gentle but with a slight rasp, caressing like raw silk, sweet and airy.
Another Zeppelin classic, "Misty Mountain Top," was up next, and Plant and company reworked the arrangement, making it their own while still, somehow, maintaining the rock integrity. Next, Plant incorporated some of his work with Alison Krauss with "Please Read the Letter," and Griffin did an admirable job of reflecting Krauss's bluegrass-influenced harmonies in her own vocals.
Mixing it up yet again, this was followed by another Zeppelin single, "Houses of the Holy," kicking the energy up a notch. The band wrapped up the set with an explosive version of "Ramble On," Plant's haunting wails ringing through the four walls of the Fillmore while quick picking on the mandolin accompanied his tones. The band took a bow and left the stage -- but, of course, that wasn't the end of the show.
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The encore was just two songs long, but what songs they were: Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll" -- which lends itself well to country stylings, surprisingly -- blasted through the auditorium, sending the crowd into a frenzy. "Is there really any way to follow that?" Plant asked, rhetorically, when he was done, awash in a roar of applause.
"It takes so many feathers for a fletcher to build an arrow," he concluded, and then the band launched into a sweet, beautiful rendition of Plant and Krauss's "Your Long Journey" -- which is, really, the only way to follow a beast like "Rock And Roll."
After the last gorgeously blended harmony left its final vibration in the air, the band once again left the stage, and the lights came up on a thoroughly awesome night with a rock legend.
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Personal Bias: Not only is Robert Plant a rock god, but he's also sex on legs. I don't care how old he is. Random Detail: At one point, Plant declared that backstage -- because he's a tad obsessive-compulsive and there's nothing to do back there -- he figured out how many days it had been since his first show at the Fillmore: 13,791. By the Way: A dead ringer for Widespread Panic guitarist Jimmy Herring was standing in the crowd, and I overheard at least two conversations about his possible rock-star identity in thirty minutes.