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Robert Plant shows softer side, but stays true to his rock roots


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Robert Plant sat on a bar stool on the stage of the Riviera on Wednesday for his third and final encore and asked for the audience's indulgence, perhaps his way of saying that he would not be closing his two-hour performance with the obligatory Led Zeppelin song.

Instead, it was Tim Buckley's "Song to the Siren," an obscure tune from a forgotten '60s folk singer who died young, long before the world had an opportunity to acknowledge one of his finest creations. Now Plant would give it its due. He called the ballad "the prettiest song that I've heard," and it was difficult to argue--especially after he sang it with a poignance that once seemed beyond the guy who promised to give his lover every inch of his love, then leave her in the morning so he could ramble.

At 52, Plant can still huff and puff with virile impudence. "Whole Lotta Love" was performed without irony, and so was "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You." They were so '60s, so politically incorrect, and so perfect in their unrepentant swagger.

But Plant has softened, too, and in appealing ways. He's become a more nuanced singer, and "Song to the Siren" demonstrated the violin-like dexterity he has acquired as a vocalist.

That Plant has found this more private space in his music should not be a surprise. Everything about this evening--from the choice of the opening act, the excellent retro-blues ensemble the Tarbox Ramblers, to his broad assortment of pre-Zep blues, garage rock and psychedelic tunes--echoed his earliest influences, from John Lee Hooker to Jimi Hendrix. As a young songwriter, Plant couldn't match the sophistication of some of the songs he covered, including supersonic reconstructions of Love's "A House is Not a Motel" and the protest-era folk ballad "Morning Dew." But he strutted, pouted and romped while looking West (to the American psychedelic and folk rockers of the '60s), then East (to Arabic rhythm and vocalizing), and finally pulling these elements under the canvas of hard rock.

With a five-piece band, Strange Sensation, culled from progressive British ensembles such as Roni Size and Portishead, as well as former Cure guitarist Porl Thompson and longtime Plant accomplice Charlie Jones on bass, the singer reconfigured classics such as Donovan's "Season of the Witch," Moby Grape's "Sitting By the Window" and the blues traditional "Hey Joe" with a mixture of acoustic coloration, electronic shadows and a hint of Zep's "Bron-Yr-Aur" boogie.

The singer spoke fondly of his first visit to Chicago and the sexual escapades that inspired the lyrics for "Misty Mountain Hop"--for which, he said, "I can never apologize enough." That was a special visit, and so was this one, a case of a rock star indulging his misty mountain memories with an old-fashioned leer and a newfound grace.

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