Pop Music : Crowd's Fired Up but Plant's Lukewarm

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Robert Plant's show practically burned down the house Friday night at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, but it also stunk up the joint.

Actually, it was Plant's fans who did the burning and stinking. Taking a familiar arena-rock act of homage to extremes, thousands of them set beer and soda cups aflame and held them aloft. Forget flick-your-Bic. This was light-your-torch.

In the 22 years since his start with Led Zeppelin, Plant presumably has seen just about everything that a rock audience's huddled masses can come up with. But this left him agape.

"Wow, look at that," the 41-year-old Englishman said, pausing after "Ship of Fools," the ballad that touched off the pyromania. Later, stopping again to scan the impressive field of burning cups, he pronounced the sight "beautiful."

The melting material from the cups smelled like incinerator spew, no doubt highly carcinogenic. For a while, mass asphyxiation seemed a possibility. Luckily, the ammo was spent by the start of Plant's second encore. Fun's fun, folks, but let's not make this a habit, OK?

Plant's show was full of other memorably strange and wacky occurrences that made the evening more than your usual hard rocker's night out. (At one point, somebody presented Plant with a lemon, an unsuccessful effort to get him to sing a Led Zep oldie, "The Lemon Song," giving the singer occasion to display some likable wit.)

Musically, the nearly two-hour show ranged from dull and diffuse during the first half to appealingly folkish during a mid-set acoustic segment, to flaming--figuratively speaking--during a splendid show-closing pair of rockabilly-tinged rockers: Zep's "Living Loving Maid (She's Just a Woman)" and Plant's solo hit "Tall Cool One."

For one of rock's supposed titans, Plant's presence as a performer was surprisingly unremarkable. He was energetic enough, with his characteristic spins, struts, cross-legged steps and dramatic, hands-aloft pose-striking framed by all manner of stage fog and backlighting.

But visuals alone don't make a singer commanding. The performers who fix our attention are the ones with something truly vivid to say. Plant has devoted his career to heroic gestures and inflated myth-weaving, but his songs during and after Led Zeppelin have seldom packed involving meanings.

Early in his show, Plant's myths and mysteries became shrouded in a musical fog of gauzelike keyboard textures and elongated, meandering arrangements. Plant found a focus by simplifying things. "Liar's Dance" featured nothing but his dramatic vocal and Doug Boyle's spare, tense acoustic guitar. He followed it with "Going to California," keeping the accompaniment acoustic while introducing a wistful, dreamy tone.

The show gathered force from there, although it was only during the hard-charging encores that Plant and his band of capable, versatile, though not really distinctive players achieved what the title of his most recent album promises: manic nirvana.

Opening singer Alannah Myles displayed a mighty blues-soaked vocal style and a frolicsome stage manner brimming with sly, mischievous sexuality. Myles did a fine job occupying the middle ground between Bonnie Raitt's rootsy authenticity and Pat Benatar's mainstream arena-rock style.

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