Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters at The Orpheum Theatre

Larson Sutton on March 16, 2018

Photo Credit: Frank Melfi

Up and down the 800 block of Broadway the bootleg T-shirt business was bustling. Of the many options of unauthorized garb, each had one thing in common: Robert Plant’s name, big and bold. There’s nothing particularly surprising about this; or that much of the contraband was decorated with iconography of his legendary former group, Led Zeppelin. If nothing else it’s good marketing to the aging masses who will always associate the rock god with his time in that colossal musical force.

Yet, Robert Plant was not in Los Angeles on the final night of his U.S. tour as a member of the mighty Zep. Neither, despite those shirts, or the top billing on the Orpheum marquee, or the album he’s presently supporting, Carry Fire, did the celebrated singer imply he’s the solo artist he became following Led’s split over 35 years ago. Instead, in what is a revealing testament to the evolution of his artistry, Plant was happy, conspicuously so, to present himself modestly as but one of seven in the band, the Sensational Space Shifters.

Yes, the 15-song set dipped into six associated with Zeppelin. Yes, those six songs drew the loudest reaction from the sold-out house. Still, Plant was coy when talking about his days being in a group, clarifying he was not referring to “that band.” And when the ensemble did tackle the Zep repertoire, it did so by unleashing the marvelous talents of the Celtic gypsy caravan it is, while remaining respectful of the songs’ melodic foundation.

It’s not easy to carve out a new identity 50 years into a career marked by such indelible early success. Plant, to his credit, didn’t try. He’s still the cool one underneath the sweat and the swagger, still the singer that coos and wails and moans in just the right spots, still delivering a song’s lyric with nuance, ability, and soul. But, he’s developed into a folk shaman now, banging his bodhran with his bandmates on “Rainbow,” keeping his once-wild blonde locks, now grey, tied neatly in a bun.

The band appeared on the darkened stage to a looping recorded segment of his 1983 hit “In the Mood,” as smoking sticks of incense affixed to the floor monitors smoldered. They opened with the guitar-fueled “New World…” then to the thumping Bo Diddley-beat of “Turn it Up,” from their 2014 release, lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar. The first Zeppelin nod came in the fifth slot with the acoustic calm of “That’s the Way,” as the audience rose and stood as one.

“It’s like church,” Plant joked, noting the sit/stand calisthenics of the crowd. The evening’s middle prompted more of the pattern; to their feet for string-band flush of “Gallow’s Pole,” and the thundering herd of acoustic and electric guitars on “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You.” Plant moved lightly, tapping the beat on his chest, or turning to shout bon mots to his mates when he wasn’t belting out the vocals. They paid homage to folk blues originator Bukka White, grinding out “Fixin’ to Die,” then on a frenetic, rearranged take of Zeppelin’s “Misty Mountain Hop,” closing the show.

Another makeover, this time turning the electronic atmospherics of the original into something of an organic, ancient chant, the Shifters encored with an hypnotic run of “In The Mood.” Then, on one last blast to the past, the group deployed a ferocious finale; a medley of “Bring It On Home/Whole Lotta Love/Santianna/Whole Lotta Love.”

The world may always see him as the golden-haired symbol of ‘70s rock. The hope and expectation of every performance may be for one that, at least in part, transports its audience back to those mystic nights of Zeppelin at the sports arena. Considering all that precedes him, masterfully, Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters pulled off an incredible feat: echoing the still-awesome bombast of his old band with an immensely gifted new one.