If it's true that whom the gods would humble they first exalt, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant have a date with humility in their future, although judging from their mostly glorious show on Friday at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, it may not be any time soon.
In their youth with Led Zeppelin, composer-guitarist Page and singer-lyricist Plant created a brand of big-gesture rock that was mainly thunder, hormones and mysticism, with very little of the stuff of scruffy, everyday life that often entered the work even of such lofty, hard-rocking peers as the Who and the Rolling Stones.
Having swung the hammer of the gods in their 20s, one would assume the time is approaching when Page, 54, and Plant, 50, won't be up to such heavy lifting. Indeed, Plant's trademark cock's-crow wail isn't as high and piercing as in his prime, and his voice has acquired a husky grain. Page's performances since the Led Zeppelin days haven't always carried the old spark.
But, backed by younger players on drums, bass and keyboards, they summoned the old thunder on Friday. And when they didn't, it was often because they were busy placating the gods with songs played in a more intimate and vulnerable emotional key that could give them a credible musical path when they no longer can thunder quite so believably.
The recently released "Walking Into Clarksdale," their first album of new songs together since Led Zeppelin's breakup in 1980, is chastened and yearning, not hormonal and gigantic, and it has more purpose and feeling than most albums from '60s and '70s icons who need a fresh excuse to tour and milk the market.
Three good new numbers helped Page and Plant ease away from full-time hammer-swinging and find a more balanced mixture of titanhood and vulnerable humanity.
They opened with a swaggering but fully cohesive series of old Zep numbers highlighted by the wonderful, lurching stomp of "Heartbreaker." The set found its focus with "When the World Was Young," a poignant, soulfully yearning song from "Clarksdale" that conceded a gap between what they were and what they are now, yet prayed for the grace and strength to go on. Many of the Zep standards that dominated the show fit with Page and Plant's vision of what suits them now: intimate acoustic readings of "Going to California" and "Tangerine," and versions of "Gallows Pole," "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" and "Thank You" exemplifying the dynamic song construction that, along with titanic force, has given Led Zeppelin's catalog such influence and staying power. Yet blitzes through "Whole Lotta Love" and "Rock and Roll" showed that they still can step assuredly into their old hammer-swinging mode.
Showing signs of wear, confessing vulnerability on a human scale, yet summoning the vigor to handle their grand musical constructs of old with fresh vitality, Page and Plant were more impressive and engaging than they would have been had they somehow pulled off a perfect impersonation of the young gods they used to be.