Robert Plant has had a long, vital career, founding the genre-defining (and genre-defying) rock band Led Zeppelin 50 years ago. In 2017 he released the fearless, furious solo album Carry Fire. But just looking at this strip of time is like viewing Plant’s live show with blinders.

In concert, Plant’s music feels like something you’d hear at a ritual gathering 3,000 years ago or at an underground London dance party in 2019. He understands the sonic traditions of million yesterdays and tomorrow.

On June 19, Plant and his band, the Sensational Space Shifters, found a fitting venue for sonic time traveling: Vail, Colo's Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater. Like a minor league Red Rocks, the Ford Amphitheatre has begun booking major acts as part of its Whistle Pig Vail series. Plant’s epic set, up against the misty mountains of the Gore Range, showcased his shamanistic charisma and utter disregard for boundaries.

Watch Robert Plant Perform 'When the Levee Breaks' in Vail, Colorado

Plant and his six-piece band began in a simmer with “When the Levee Breaks.” Pulled back to almost a dirge, yet full of energy, the Zeppelin classic set the tone for the night: It was almost as if he said, "Yes, I will play plenty of songs you know by heart, but I refuse to indulge in cover band mediocrity."

He pulled half a dozen songs from the Page and Plant union, playing it almost straight for “Four Sticks.” The rest featured progressive arrangements -- at 69, Plant only looks forward, even with the old stuff.

“Going to California” had a modern hippie aesthetic bands like the Avett Brothers try for. The six-piece band turned “Gallows Pole” into a kind of Celtic bluegrass (Plant joked the band had been watching YouTube videos on how to get it right in the bluegrass world). One of his longtime sidemen, Liam Tyson, added long acoustic guitar passages to “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” rooted in Spanish flamenco but happy to jump the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco for some North African tones.

The lineup played the classic catalog with an irreverent reverence (or maybe that’s a reverent irreverence). But they put at least as much enthusiasm into their recent work. As Plant told the sold-out crowd, “We have the audacity to make new music and not just play the old shit.”

New tune “The May Queen” became a ceremony in tribute to a blooming valley two days from the Summer Solstice. In “Carry Fire,” Plant finally has a companion piece to “Kashmir,” a song with the Homeric qualities of Zeppelin’s biggest works that still embodies his skill for melding centuries old tribal music to urban British trip-hop.

Pulsing with some samples from keys and loops master John Baggott, “Turn It Up” had Plant making Jimmy Swaggart look like an amateur -- from the pulpit of the stage, a fine-voiced Plant sang “I’m lost inside America / And I’m turning inside out / I’m turning into someone else/I heard so much about / I’m blinded by the neon / The righteous and the might.”

Watch Robert Plant Perform in Vail, Colorado

At some point Plant won’t be able to play the rock ‘n’ roll Pied Piper. At some point his voice will disappear (even if his artist’s heart thrives until its last beat). But at 8,120 feet, an altitude that can stymie professional athletes, he remained a cosmic Faerie King, a Golden God, a magnificent badass.

Robert Plant, Vail, Colo., June 19, 2018, Set List
1. "When the Levee Breaks"
2. "Four Sticks"
3. "Turn It Up"
4. "The May Queen"
5 "Going to California"
6. "In the Mood"
7. "Gallows Pole"
8. "Carry Fire"
9. "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You"
10. "Little Maggie"
11. "Fixin' to Die"

Encore
12. "Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down" / "In My Time of Dying"
13. "Whole Lotta Love"

 

Robert Plant Albums Ranked