Robert Plant & The Sensational Shape Shifters, The Pixies
Photo by David Klein
Koka Booth Amphitheatre, Cary
Tuesday, June 16
This has been an extremely dinosaur-themed few days, and I’m not just referring to the rampaging box-office success of Jurassic World
. Last week, an INDY
reviewer likened the then-upcoming Pixies/Robert Plant pairing at Koka Booth Amphitheatre to a dinosaur double-bill
. Not to mention there was another dinosaur playing nearby: a plant-eating variety known as Morrissey.
If the former Smiths singer holding court at the Carolina Theatre was a long-necked, herbivorous sauropod, the former Led Zeppelin singer topping the bill in Cary was a slightly grizzled T. rex. Pixies—crucial ’90s indie icons led by Black Francis, aka Frank Black (née Charles Thompson)—were the upstart black-clad velociraptors. Without having seen His Mozzness, my guess is that of the prehistoric trio, T. rex had the most fun.
So how did this seemingly mismatched bill originate? Robert Plant has always talked up music he loves, whether by indigenous musicians or indie bands such as Let’s Active. (He once declared that he would mow Mitch Easter’s lawn
.) So it’s no surprise that Plant is a Pixies fan and wants to tour with them. And Black Francis is one of the world’s great screamers—which would seem a natural for a bill with Plant. But somehow the mix was off, like a mayonnaise soda, to quote Lou Reed. The abrasiveness and unadorned presentation of Pixies did not seem pleasing to an overheated, baby-boomer-tending audience used to a concert experience with a sense of spectacle.
Don’t get me wrong. They sounded great, with a set that leaned heavily on Doolittle
, one of the band’s recorded high points. Paz Lenchantin admirably handled the bass-playing and vocal responsibilities that once belonged to Kim Deal and provided needed visual spark. The guitars sounded like heaven. Throughout, as is his practice, Black Francis said nothing to the crowd between songs as the band motored through its set. In fairness, the stultifying pre-dusk heat no doubt would present a challenge even to battle-hardened performers. No doubt, hearing all these killer songs by such a monumental band would have been vastly more pleasurable in a dark room, later at night. Yet even under ideal weather conditions, this was a Plant-leaning crowd.
All that dinosaur stuff aside, Robert Plant is no dinosaur. In the years since Led Zeppelin’s sudden demise in 1980, he has continually explored musical idioms, never basking in one style for too long. In the Sensational Shape Shifters he’s found a vibrant, responsive ensemble capable of delivering the heft needed to pull off classic Zeppelin as well as breathing new life into songs that are as familiar as air to several generations of listeners. Arrangements were enlivened by the addition of samples, drum loops, unexpected excursions and meter changes. West African multi-instrumentalist Juldeh Camara added solos on a violin-like instrument where a Jimmy Page solo might once have gone, and the results were entrancing.
Beginning with “The Wanton Song,”
a deep cut from Led Zeppelin’s sprawling double-sider Physical Graffiti
, the set highlights couldn’t help but be Zeppelin material, but those moments were doled out in a ragout of sounds that didn’t lean too heavily on familiarity. Plant, preternaturally at ease onstage, has always enjoyed speaking off the cuff to the gathered throngs. (Does anybody remember laughter?
) Gandalf-ian in an emerald green tunic, Plant at one point referred to music from the Appalachians as if the region were just up the road apiece, showing that his love for American musical forms far outstrips his knowledge of geography. It didn’t matter a whit. Who else sounds like Robert Plant?
The now-66-year-old singer recently told Rolling Stone
that after his recent collaboration with folk-rocker Patti Griffin, working with the U.K.-based Sensational Shape Shifters has reunited him with his “R.P. voice.”
And that’s what made it all so good: just hearing that voice—intact, familiar, larger than life—and not yet extinct.