While a good many of his peers have recently discovered that necessity is the mother of re-invention, Robert Plant has been edging away from his image as a preening, lemon-squeezing rock god for well over a decade. In fact, he’s come to the point where he’s so far beyond it that he can revisit it more or less as an outsider — which added considerably to the wow factor of his surprisingly exploratory Gotham perf.
For years after the collapse of Led Zeppelin, Plant distanced himself from the band’s material, steadfastly refusing to perform it in concert. These days, however, he’s reclaiming it, as borne out by a dusky, Middle Eastern-inflected rendition of “No Quarter” that opened the 90-minute set.
Similar geosonic settings imbued a good bit of the new material — culled from the as-yet-unreleased Sanctuary album “Mighty Re-Arranger” — that Plant and his Strange Sensation band previewed here. On these songs, notably the percussion-driven “Shine It All Around,” Plant (who took the stage clad in simple white T-shirt and faded, not-too-tight jeans) seemed content to hang back and act like just another band member.
The exception to that rule was “Freedom Fries,” a simply arranged, instantly piercing allegory in which Plant manages to quote both Bob Dylan and Don McLean on his way to a envisioning a desert-set Armageddon. That dark tone seeped through the cracks of a goodly number of the evening’s offerings, including covers such as a menacing take on “Morning Dew” (which traded the Grateful Dead’s ether for an ammoniac harshness) and an almost hymn-like version of “Darkness Darkness.”
Sure, there were moments of unbridled hedonism — a lasciviously cautionary “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” and an appropriately strutting “Heartbreaker” — but Plant chose not to linger too long in that territory. That decision was probably prompted in part by his inability to call up the horndog higher register of his glory days (a failing most obvious during an off-key “Black Dog” that found him leaning on audience participation for vocal support).
More likely, however, that range revision had more to do with Plant’s obvious desire to be seen — jiggling paunch and all — in the clear light of day, rather than through the mists of nostalgia.