July 11th, 2013
Millennium Park, Chicago, IL
Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters
July 12th, 2013
Grant Park, Chicago, IL
Yes, I realize this will probably be the first and the last time Robert Plant and Dan Deacon will be mentioned in the same sentence or review for that matter, but I saw both acts play in Chicago last week for free on back-to-back nights, and I figured why not take them both on together. You could say I was inspired by fellow LxLer Austin’s “Battle of the ‘J’s’” review which looked at J. Cole and Jay-Z’s new albums, although Plant and Deacon have an incy bit less in common.
For what it’s worth, I viewed both shows as somewhat of bucket list material: Dan Deacon for his wildly inventive and playful shows (as seen before by Austin last year in St. Louis), and Plant for his legendary status of fronting the first and greatest heavy rock band. Let’s start with the lesser known Deacon, and move towards the legend.
Dan Deacon played in the wonderfully scenic and metallic Jay Pritzker Pavillion in Millennium Park as part of the free “Loops and Variations” series, a performance of live electronic music every Thursday in the summer. An outdoor amphitheater is not all that conducive to what Dan Deacon does, which actually works best in a tight communal hall where Deacon actually sets up in the middle of the room to conduct the crowd rather than the cavernous distance created between the crowd and the artist inherent in a huge venue like Millennium Park. But Deacon compensated pretty well, loosening up the audience with plenty of jokes and crowd participation from the second he hit the stage, inviting everyone down to get as close as possible to the stage, even if the rows of bound chairs restricted people from getting too close and too tight. Our group of six worked our way up as far as possible and actually ended up about five heads back from Deacon and his band, which was just two all-out drummers, who smashed their kits like Animal from Muppets at a rave.
For those unfamiliar with Deacon’s music, he plays a very driving, explorative, and often quirky brand of electronic music, fitting with his look: more nerd genius than handsome rock front man. But Dan works the crowd better than most, and gets the crowd to do anything he pretty much asks. Whether that’s a dance circle, a human tunnel, a game of dancing Simon says, or even having everyone download and use his app, Deacon puts on one of the most fun and interactive shows around. Deacon only played about an hour, and was a bit more limited than usual as to what he could make the crowd due to the restrictive setting, but nonetheless Deacon and his two drummers put on a riveting show including the longest human tunnel I have seen and one of the sweatiest crowds I have seen in a while.
As for Plant, he brought his latest band, the Sensational Space Shifters, to Taste of Chicago, Chicago’s largest festival which takes place in Grant Park, for a free show on Friday night of the festival. The former Led Zeppelin front man in recent years has shifted his sound smartly in a more roots-oriented direction, starting with the magnificient duet album with bluegrass’s Allison Krauss on Raising Sand, and the covers-heavy roots rock album Band of Joy in 2010. We only caught the last 2/3rds of Plant’s set, but I still feel we got a good feel for what offers nowadays live, which unfortunately is somewhat of a shell musically of his former self.
I am always fascinated with what makes an artist endure and ripen with age or simply sour over time, and while a major component of that has to do with their musical content (artists like Tom Waits, Johnny Cash, and Neil Young who have always sung about death and weariness age well when they grow old and weary), but I also think a big part of it is vocal style: certain vocal deliveries require more strain than others. For example, Paul Simon sounds barely different from 40-50 years ago because his vocal style is not straining on his voice, and thus has endured quite well. Plant on the other hand, has the arguably the greatest rocker voice of all time, a screeching blues howl that ranges as well as anyone, but it makes sense that such a voice would wear over time. Thus, on songs like “What Is And What Should Never Be” and “Whole Lotta Love”, which require Plant to lay it on the line with his high-pitched squeal, instead find him settling for an octave lower which is pretty disappointing but understandable.
As for the band, they played well enough but its hard to hear a recently assembled group try to fill the roles of Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham. The band wisely changes the well-worn Zeppelin songs a bit, adding little blues and country elements in the songs to make them a little different, but you can only compensate so much. Multi-instrumentalist and Gambia native Juldeh Camara added perhaps the most interesting element into the band by playing African banjo and an African one-stringed fiddle adding some country and world music elements to the mix.
The set ended on “Rock ‘n’ Roll”, which was barely recognizable for the first couple minutes, which is a never a good sign for a music veteran. It was giving me flashbacks to seeing Bob Dylan, which again, is never a good sign. The show was not without its highlights like Plant sitting down for a soulful take on “Going to California”, but I would be lying if I didn’t say I was rendered a little disappointed by Plant. Either way, free is free, and its’ not every day you get to see a larger-than-life figure like Plant.
Deacon Rating: 8/11
Plant Rating: 6/11