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Within the space of a week, ageless superstars Robert Plant and Jeff Beck hit the Twin Cities with strong, sold-out shows at the State Theater in Minneapolis.
Robert Plant rolled in April 12th with the Band of Joy, a five-piece back-up featuring vocalist Patty Griffin. It was a solid set with flavors ranging from blues to country to folk all fueled by stripped-down, quintessential rock. It was a knock-me-over-with-a-feather surprise that there was none of the shrill, nails-on-a-chalkboard caterwauling from his years as front man for Led Zeppelin. Plant still can't blow harp worth a damn, but that was negligible. He waxed melodic, the band was tight and the songs were good.
Plant took the Zep favorite "Black Dog" and streamlined it, coming up with a sleek, pumping version that amounted to a complete overhauling. Little more than halfway through the evening, he reminisced with the crowd, recalling from his teenage years the time he was backstage at a blues concert and was inspired by legendary figure Blind Rev. Gary Davis. Then, Plant launched into a pretty good rendition of Davis's "Twelve Gates to the City", segueing into the old slave spiritual "Wade in the Water." Everybody, of course, has their favorite interpretation of "Wade in the Water," whether it's Big Mama Thornton's, Janis Joplin's, whoever. Griffin weighed in and held her own quite well. Another chestnut was "Satisfied Mind," which probably every country singer on earth has done at one time or another. Robert Plant and the Band of Joy delivered a moving rendition that was practically reverential. The closing encore Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" got a thorough going over with choral-type vocals, inventive jamming and, bottom line, was a fine note on which to send the happy crowd off with plenty to talk about on their way home. (The less said of opening duo North Mississippi Allstars' recycled Greg Allman vocals, rudimentary guitar, and routine drumming the better.)
Jeff Beck, one of rock's most gifted guitarists, isn't much of a showman. Of course, with such ungodly chops, who needs to be? Still, you hope for more interaction than a frequent grin and, if you're lucky, a half-dozen sentences the whole night. More to the point, on the 18th, the closest he came to introducing his band was a playful nod to the keyboardist, pretending to only remember his first name, Jason. So, to uninitiates, it was an evening of Beck burning the house down in bright spirits, accompanied by some guy named Jason, a flashy drummer, and a highly skilled, bass-playing hottie. Who knew, until I looked it up, that everybody on stage was a headliner? It turned out to be multiple award-winner Jason Rebello, the one and only Narada Michael Walden (so that's what he looks like—a bald, broadly smiling truck of a guy, decked out in bondage-chic, including jewel-studded choker) and premiere funkster Rhonda Smith.
Beck, on his trademark bone-white Fender Strat, was effortlessly fluid and clean, breaking into one announced instrumental after another. Covers were virtuoso interpretations, including unlikely, marvelously effective takes on the Beatles' "A Day In The Life" and, of all things, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," a sweetly subdued, jazz-tinged foray a la the incredible work he did with Stevie Wonder on "Looking for Another Pure Love" from Talking Book.
Hard as it may be to believe, there were questionable moments. Muddy Waters's blues classic "Rollin' and Tumblin'" drove hard enough to break down a brick wall—however, Smith put so much into growling the lyrics she hardly sang any of them. Which was a drag, because she's an accomplished vocalist. The Jimi Hendrix Experience gem "Little Wing" didn't come up to the original. Instead of reworking the song, Beck and company went with Hendrix's arrangement off Axis: Bold As Love. Direct comparison was unavoidable. Walden, for all his extraordinary ability, is not Mitch Mitchell, who, like Walden, played a double-bass drum kit. Mitchell put it to mind-staggering use. The best Walden could do, dynamite as he is, was come close. Similarly, Beck is one of history's best. But, he ain't Jimi Hendrix. Nearing the end, bedlam ensued with the crowd going nuts as this assemblage of monster musicians took off on Sly and he Family Stone's "I Wanna Take You Higher." Ultimately, it was a helluva set everyone on hand will remember a long, long time.
Opener Tyler Bryant, on the other hand, was forgettable, a Jonny-Lang-like, 20-year-old, John Cougar Mellencamp wannabe who got by on the strength of being cute and playing busy guitar while affecting grown-up vocals.
Robert Plant and Jeff Beck, both in top form, basically back to back. Pretty hard to top that.