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Plant Rises Above Led Zeppelin

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by Wayne Robbins

Robert Plant deserves respect both for what he's done since the demise of Led Zeppelin three years ago, as well as for what he hasn't done. He could have used his stature as the most beloved and imitated heavy-metal vocalist to form a take-the-money-and-run band, filling stadiums singing Led Zeppelin favorites and a smattering of formulaic new songs.

But Plant took the sad opportunity that presented itself after the death of Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham in 1980 to begin re-exploring the blues, an early passion that he, Jimmy Page, Bonham and John Paul Jones amplified and restructured to create heavy metal a dozen years ago. He played small clubs in Great Britain with an unasssuming band, and bided his time until the music felt right.

During the last two years Plant has started a solo career from scratch. Although he had the luxury of filling Madison Square Garden Monday night based largely on the strength of the Led Zeppelin legacy, he performed none of the songs from that band's enormously popular and familiar repertoire. Instead, he and an always capable and sometimes inspired band concentrated on less well-known songs from Plant's two recent solo albums, "Pictures At Eleven" and "The Principle of Moments".

Plant, of course, is no fool. His new band's music is certainly a first-cousin to the Led Zeppelin sound, which alternated between two basic forms: the pneumatic yet lithe sound that characterized early hard rock hits such as "Whole Lotta Love", and the more elegiac songs that gradually spiralled from acoustic balladry to crescendos of drama, such as "Stairway To Heaven", the most ubiquitous song on rock and roll radio throghout the last decade.

But while Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page played guitar with nervous enlightenment, keeping the listener enthralled yet off-guard, Plant's new cohort, Robbie Blunt, has an earthy, linear approach. Since Blunt and Plant co-author virtually all their songs, Blunt's style was clearly appropriate to the tunes, which began with the churning, bracing "In The Mood" (not by the way, the Glenn Miller song).

Rather than echoing the style of the English guitar heroes of the 1970's, Blunt's fluid yet piercing playing recalled some of America's great southern rockers of that era, especially Duane Allman and Allen Collins of Lynyrd Skynyrd.

In addition to Blunt, keyboard player Jeff (sic) Woodroffe, and bassist Paul Martinez, Plant's band featured drummer Phil Collins, widely admired as both an imaginative solo artist and a former key member of Genesis. It was an indication of the quality and restraint of this band that when the crowd roared its approval at Collins' introduction, he briefly and comically tooted on a miniature trumpet rather than indulging himself with a pro forma 20-minute percussion solo.

But the evening really belonged to Plant. As a performer, he was relaxed, graceful, comfortable with his body English. His voice, always a delightful hard rock instrument, with its confident phrasing and tone balanced among the salty, raspy, and sweet, was in top form. Many of the songs were arresting- "Other Arms" was particularly moving. And at least one of them, "Thru With the Two-Step", just may finally end young America's infatuation with "Stairway To Heaven".

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