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Robert Plant’s instincts still strong in Grant Park show marked by Zeppelin classics

Robert Plant Petrillo Music Shell Friday July 12 2013 |  Phoby Jeff Elbel

Robert Plant at Petrillo Music Shell, Friday, July 12, 2013 | Photo by Jeff Elbel

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Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You

In the Mood

Tin Pan Valley


Black Dog

Another Tribe

Going to California

The Enchanter

What Is and What Should Never Be

Fixin’ to Die

Whole Lotta Love

Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down

Rock and Roll

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Updated: July 13, 2013 7:56PM

Robert Plant stepped onto the stage at Petrillo Music Shell and delivered the weather report. “It’s a good night for it,” said the singer. Indeed, clear skies and mild temperatures blessed a crowd that stretched into the farthest corner of Grant Park.

Adored as the golden-maned frontman of foundational hard rockers Led Zeppelin, Plant’s position in the rock music pantheon is unshakeable. His staying power, however, has been accumulated as a restless musical seeker. Older fans remember Plant’s detour into rhythm and blues with the Honeydrippers. Plant mined success from roots music with 2007’s “Raising Sand,” collaborating with bluegrass star Alison Krauss.

Plant’s current sound is his own concoction. The Sensational Space Shifters fuse rock, techno and traditional West African textures. If nothing else, Plant’s audience knows not to wait around for another “Stairway to Heaven.”

That’s not to say that fans wouldn’t like to hear some more Zep, and Friday night’s concert offered plenty. Many songs were drawn from the venerable quartet’s albums, beginning with a haunting and melancholy “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.”

True to his nature, Plant did not present faithful re-creations of old rockers like “Black Dog.” Even the spooky gospel blues of “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” was recast as a heavier, mystical excursion compared to what the folk-informed Band of Joy performed in 2010. Guitarist Justin Adams brought hints of Afropop to Plant’s 1983 solo hit “In the Mood,” creating a more buoyant vibe than the original.

Plant the musicologist gave a lesson on blues classic “Spoonful,” first recorded by Howlin’ Wolf. After describing the song’s Chicago roots, the Sensational Space Shifters introduced a version with otherworldly keyboard swirls.

Following the crowd’s rousing sing-along for the wistful “Going to California,” Plant congratulated a couple who had become engaged as the song played. Later, Plant made a wry dedication of “What Is and What Should Never Be” to the happy pair.

“You’ve been having a very gentle evening of soft rock,” said Plant with a chuckle. “We’re here to bring you some old English folk songs.” Former Massive Attack keyboardist John Baggott’s heavily distressed sounds then transported “Rock and Roll” into alien terrain. At the other extreme was Gambian musician Juldeh Camara, who coaxed peculiar and compelling twists from his single-stringed African violin.

Closing his main set with a thundering “Whole Lotta Love,” Plant sang at full force and ignited the memory of Led Zeppelin.

The concert’s diversity provided fresh evidence of Plant’s uncanny instinct, evident throughout the strangest of his many career diversions. The winding path has proved rewarding to his audience’s musical horizons.

Opening the concert was Brooklyn-based alternative folk-rock act The Lone Bellow. The group’s unique strength on songs including the anthemic “Bleeding Out” and graceful “Tree to Grow” was effortless close harmony.

“I wrote this song when I was feeling inadequate,” said Zach Williams before launching the cathartic country stomp of “The One You Should’ve Let Go.” Williams thanked concert sponsor WXRT and Chicago-based fans for crucial support.

Jeff Elbel is a Sun-Times free-lance writer.

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