Robert Plant's show practically burned down the house Friday night at Irvine Meadows, 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 Led Zeppelin debut, 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 to look at the flames after "Ship of Fools," the ballad that touched off the pyromania. Later, stopping again to scan the impressive field of burning cups--tall hot ones, you might say--he pronounced the sight "beautiful."
Unfortunately, this post-match stick, post-butane escalation to nuke-force gestures of fealty did not come without its nasty fallout: the melting material from the cups smelled like incinerator spew, no doubt highly carcinogenic. For a while, mass asphyxiation seemed a possibility. Luckily the paper ammo had been 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. These were not necessarily related to his musical performance, which ranged from dull and diffuse during the first half to appealingly folksy 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." At one point, cough-inducing billows of sickly sweet stage smoke wafted into the stands, even reaching the relatively distant second tier of seats. This happened at the very moment when Plant was singing the refrain, "little by little, I can breathe again." Easy for him to say--he spent most of the nearly two-hour show swathed in clouds of the stuff, so he must be inured to it. For everybody but Plant, whose trademark hollers and stringy-voiced cries sounded as emphatic as ever, this was a rough night on the lungs.
Then there was the lemon-toss event. During a pause in the show, somebody threw, handed, or otherwise presented Plant with a lemon--a rather ingenious way of requesting "The Lemon Song," the Led Zeppelin crotch-rock oldie that recycles all manner of salacious trad-blues cliches.
Plant, who devoted about a third of his set to Led Zeppelin material, and the rest to songs from his decade-long solo career, turned down the request with engaging, slightly self-mocking wit. "A sad yellow fruit," he mused, holding, but not squeezing, the lemon (which, in "The Lemon Song," is freighted with sexual connotations). The lemon "comes from way back," he added. "I used to have one of these things myself." Then he rolled it across the stage with the aplomb of a master cricketer.
Nobody could say Plant wasn't likeable. But, for one of rock's supposed titans, his presence as a performer was surprisingly unremarkable. Plant 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. After all these years, it's hard to tell what Plant thinks about the world just by listening to his music. He has given us big lust and big pain, expressed in cliches and abstractions both low-down or elevated. He also has given us vague yearnings of the heart and unfocused contemplations of the great mystery of being. After God-knows-how-many unavoidable listenings, one is still forced to ask: What is "Stairway to Heaven" about, anyway?
Two songs that Plant performed while accompanying videos played behind him illuminated this shortcoming. "Tie Dye on the Highway," a celebration of the Woodstock festival and its ideals, was illustrated with soft-focus love-in scenes from the hippy daze. Later, Plant sang "Immigrant Song," a Led Zeppelin number that celebrates a diametrically opposed set of values: the warrior ethos of the Norse legends, in which a valiant death, after taking a bloody toll of the enemy, was the ticket to Valhalla--so peace and love be damned.
There's nothing intrinsically wrong with extolling pacifists in one song, then singing a warlike ode in another--Woodstock Nation's flower children and Viking marauders are both interesting subjects, and nobody's asking for a dull consistency. But a thinking performer would try to explore the implications and contradictions involved in those two myths, to take a point of view on what it means to live out the ideals of a Woodstock pacifist or a blood-soaked Teutonic hero. For Plant, Woodstock and Valhalla are just more fodder for the hazy myth-making, sensation and grandeur that his method has always required, but seldom gone beyond.
Early in his show, Plant's myths and mysteries became shrouded in a musical fog of gauzelike keyboard textures and elongated, meandering arrangements. "Billy's Revenge" was indicative: It began as a dark, driving rockabilly song, but turned into an endless exercise in musical film noir in which the song's thrust was spent well before it finally ended (if not for Charlie Jones' firmly insistent bass-playing, it seemed that parts of the show might have become entirely unmoored and just floated away).
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 hails from Toronto, but her throaty, pliant voice is 86-proof Texas roadhouse blues. Myles, whose debut album has sold more than 1 million copies on the strength of the smoldering hit "Black Velvet," occupies a middle ground between Bonnie Raitt's rooty authenticity and the mainstream arena-rock style of a Pat Benatar. Mainstream arena rock can be a fatuous, inflated, terribly slick thing, but Myles avoided those pitfalls with emotionally direct, if somewhat simplistic songs, and sinewy, stripped-down arrangements fired by Kurt Schefter's raw, Keith Richards-influenced guitar.
Myles wasn't above striking a contrived pose, but she was nevertheless an eminently watchable, frolicsome performer brimming with sly, mischievous sexuality. Old guard mainstream types such as Benatar, Heart and Cyndi Lauper needn't look back to see whether this newcomer is gaining on them. Propelled by blues power and the unpretentious sense of enjoyment and enthusiasm she brought to her performance, Myles has already passed them by.