Robert Plant at the Auditorium Theatre

By Mark Guarino

For Robert Plant, the competition is always on against Robert Plant, the iconic “golden god” of Led Zeppelin, the mighty British rock group that didn’t make a move that wasn’t titanic.

When Zeppelin dissolved in 1980, Plant could not walk away completely. Instead, he found creative ways to reference his legacy. In the ‘80s, he sampled signature Zeppelin tunes into Tall Cool One,” a hit song turned Coke commercial. In the ‘90s, he reworked his old songs live and in the studio with his former bandmate Jimmy Page. But even when he wasn’t technically fiddling with his former band’s catalog, his sensual howl, grooving hips and shaggy blonde curls personified the era long past, when rock band excess, Chicago blues and mysticism were intertwined and off the scale.

At his sold-out show at the Auditorium Theatre Saturday, Plant once again faced his past. But this time out, the 20-minute drum solos were cut down to one-minute and replaced with bongos and hand drums. Rhythm is now king for Plant, not bombast. Instead of storming the stage with his new band the Strange Sensations, each member strolled out individually, hitting hand drums and building an exotic palate of rhythm together on the Zeppelin classic “No Quarter,” as they did for most of the one-hour, 50-minute show.

By mining inspiration in subtlety, Plant, 56, sounds more reenergized than he has in years past. “The Mighty Rearranger” (Sanctuary), his first album of original tunes in 12 years, is the reason. As the new song “Shine It All Around” was all about its strutting beat, the album’s title song stuck to a tight blues rhythm, topped by Plant’s harmonica. “The Enchanter” was also blues but funneled through North Africa, thanks to the snaky guitar lines of Justin Adams and Plant’s vocals that fluttered up octaves. None of these songs had the triumphant power of his Zeppelin past, but instead served more as vehicles for Plant’s vocal signatures and his band to find different ways to wrap itself around a single idea.

Much of Saturday’s setlist was devoted to reworked Zeppelin songs. “When the Levee Breaks,” ripe with references with Chicago, was toned down acoustically while “Black Dog” was turned into slow, churning blues, Plant’s call-and-response between Plant’s vocals and Page’s guitar now turned over to the crowd.

Plant showed a specific affinity for Chicago. “The sounds that came out of Chess Studios in Chicago brought me here,” he said. He reported spending the afternoon in Welles Park at the Old Town School of Folk Music’s Folk & Roots Festival. He endorsed the school’s commitment to world music as well as Chicago soul music legend Otis Clay who headlined Saturday.

His comments were followed with his transformation of “Whole Lotta Love,” the show ender now filtered through several phases, from slow sultry blues to a psychedelic middle, a guitar duel and, as a climax, the famous last note he sustained high and far. Plant didn’t have many of those left, but as the last gesture before leaving the stage, he pulled it out of reserve.

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