Like most cult heroes, Arthur Lee — the driving force behind the orchestral-rock supernova Love — has seen his legacy grow monumentally in the years after his performing heyday. A pioneer sociologically (he predated Jimi Hendrix as the first significant African-American figure in ’60s rock) and sonically (Love’s “Forever Changes” is a holy grail of sorts for art-rock aficionados), Lee was diagnosed with leukemia earlier this year, prompting the organization of this benefit show.
Long before Lee’s bad news came down, Robert Plant was one of Lee’s most vocal supporters, singing his praises in interviews as well as singing his material in concert. Plant worked up a number of Love songs for this perf, touching on both the bitter (a hard-charging “Bummer in the Summer”) and the sweet (a poignant “The Old Man”). The ever-restless singer even did a bit of customizing, grafting a swatch of Neil Young’s “Cowgirl in the Sand” onto Love’s “7 + 7 Is.”
Plant’s low-key appearance — a well-worn T-shirt and baggy jeans — contrasted starkly with the intensity of his delivery. Backed by Ian Hunter’s band — and joined by Hunter himself on a version of “When Will I Be Loved” — the singer explored every rung on his vocal ladder, hitting banshee highs on “Ramble On” (one of a handful of Led Zeppelin tunes he tackled) and segueing into croon mode for “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”
Ryan Adams, clean-shaven and clear-eyed, led his band the Cardinals through the evening’s most exhilarating set. Although Adams apologized for not playing any songs from Lee’s catalog, he went a long way toward capturing the tribute subject’s open-hearted feel — particularly on an extended, serpentine version of “What Sin Replaces Love.”
Garland Jeffreys and Nils Lofgren both turned in workmanlike performances well received by the aud, a sometimes uneasy melange of classic rockers and indie types. Yo La Tengo’s ethereal offerings — pushed along ever so gently by Georgia Hubley’s pitter-pat drumming — were occasionally overmatched by roiling crowd noise, but connected sweetly when the volume was nudged up a notch.
At four-plus hours, the program had a bit of fat — largely because intermissions grew longer as the evening wore on — but the spirit with which the participants threw themselves into the effort made it much easier to wolf down the final product.
A Los Angeles benefit for Lee, with lineup still in flux, will be held Wednesday at the Whisky.