Back in his dancing daze with Led Zeppelin, flaxen-tressed wailer Robert Plant couldn't fit a dime in his pocket without splitting his perilously snug trousers up the middle. He was the epitome of Rock Sex God, with all the writhing and high-holy howls that go with the pose.
The Brit is 61 now, and at a soldout Ruth Eckerd Hall on Friday, his jeans were symbolically baggy, capable of holding at least five bucks in change without threat to the front row. But great artists adapt, and that's what the long-gone-solo star has done, embracing roots-rock, gospel and Americana grit in a late-career rebirth that has won him new fans, shiny awards and relevance as a singer who's more than libido and looks (although truth be told, his hair remains AWESOME).
Backed by his phenomenal Band of Joy, a sort-of rebirth of a group he was in before Led Zep, Plant gave a euphoric crowd of 2,180 almost two hours of intricately reworked classics (Misty Mountain Hop was the first to get fans up and grooving), earthy spirituals (a spooky Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down) and cuts from a new album (Townes Van Zandt's Harm's Swift Way) to be released Sept. 14.
Plant is still a man in constant motion, but his undulations are more contained now. And although his voice can still achieve that clean, crystalline siren's call (on Gallows Pole, on Tall Cool One), it no longer strives to pierce your frontal lobe.
To wait any longer in this review without mentioning Buddy Miller, king of the psychobilly guitar, would be irresponsible. He was a marvel, sending shivers of reverb through a Houses of the Holy that commenced as a honky-tonker but finished with all the ripped, ragged fury of the original.
The show closed with a roadhouse version of Rock and Roll and Miller added to that rave-up with madman dexterity.
Not all of the Zeppelin songs worked so well — Over the Hills and Far Away was muddled with mismatched harmonies — but tender takes on Tangerine and Thank You brought the crowd to hushed ecstasy.
Plant was also joined onstage by hip-swaying roots-rocker Patty Griffin, who added sweet harmonies and eye-candy appeal.
Plant's 2007 duets album with Alison Krauss, Raising Sand, won the Grammy for album of the year, and with good reason. With Griffin playing the Krauss role in the May-December pairing, Rich Woman Blues and Please Read the Letter remained atmospheric, vaguely creepy minor masterpieces. Griffin also helped Plant take his 1980s solo hit In the Mood to a new, nuanced climax.
Speaking of femme fatales: It would have been nice to see Plant try to keep up with 64-year-old opener Bettye LaVette, the soul survivor who turned George Harrison's Isn't It a Pity and the Who's Love, Reign O'er Me into pained, personal rafter rattlers.
If folks didn't know LaVette before this night, they sure do now. She was small but mighty, making the show unforgettable before the hirsute headliner even took the stage.
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life column runs every Sunday in Floridian.