At Toronto's Massey Hall on Tuesday, Robert Plant was singing about being our rainbow after the storm. "I will bring my song to you, and I will carry on," he crooned. If we ask anything more than that from our rock stars, we are asking too much.
Then again, perhaps rock stars are asking too much of us. About the time Tom Petty came around here a few weeks ago, I was speaking to someone from his record label about Petty's latest album being bundled into the price of his concert tickets. Basically, fans who wished to see his show were forced to purchase Hypnotic Eye as well. They could turn down the offer, but they were still paying for it. Defending the practice, the record company rep said, "These artists want their new music to be heard."
There's a lot of that going on. U2, of course, recently offloaded their new Songs of Innocence album onto Apple, who climbed down the chimneys of iTunes customers and left the LP as gifts. Last week, Radiohead's Thom Yorke snap-released Tomorrow's Modern Boxes using a new version of BitTorrent, for the pay-gated price of just $6.
In an open letter, Yorke and producer Nigel Godrich described their digital distribution method as an "experiment." U2's Bono has said that the decision to stick Songs of Innocence directly into subscribers' iTunes libraries was meant to "stir things up and annoy people."
Going forward, U2 and Apple are reportedly working on a new digital music format that will be "audiovisual" and "interactive," according to Bono. More importantly, as it pertains to the business of selling music, the new file format will apparently be unpirateable.
As for Plant, his experiments and attention mostly concern the actual music itself, not the distribution model. His show at Massey Hall was a coming-out party for his latest solo album Lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar, a hypnotizer of a disc that finds the former Led Zeppelin frontman trotting the globe for African rhythms, Celtic touches, woolly blues and eclectic space-rock approaches. The album is much more akin to 2005's Mighty ReArranger than 2007's Raising Sand, his re-inventive collaboration with bluegrass star Alison Krauss.
Plant's band is called the Sensational Shape Shifters, which shares members with his Strange Sensation crew from the past. So, shape-shifting, mighty rearranging, strange sensations and ceaseless roaring. The adventurous man, now 66, is still on the move.
At Massey, to the murky, watery strains of Zeppelin's No Quarter, Plant slowly walked on stage, curly-blonde head down, as if deep in thought – "They choose the path where no one goes."
More Zeppelin happened, including versions of Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You, Going to California and Whole Lotta Love (with an interlude of Bo Diddley's Who Do You Love) which varied in their faithfulness to the originals. On the immaculate soft psychedelia of Thank You, Plant presented as a groovy shaman from a flowery era: "My world it smiles, your hand in mine, we walk the miles."
Banjos were involved, as were mandolins, tambourine-like African hand drums and Gambian musician Juldeh Camara's ritti, a bowed instrument that produced Celtic pipe-like sounds. A version of the Howlin' Wolf blues How Many More Years was wildly re-worked, and Bukka White's Fixin' to Die had a dirt-road giddy-up and rugged chug to it.
Before signing off with Little Maggie, from his new album, Plant quipped something about the concert inspiring the attendees to go online and buy the album. Sure, in a perfect world. What he apparently didn't know was that the album was part of the ticket price, just like the bundle deal of Petty's. So, if anyone in the sold-out crowd wanted the album, they already had it.
Plant had arrived in Canada on the same day as Spotify, the popular streaming service. Shapes are shifting in how we receive our music, just as they are with Plant's adventurous sounds. He'll carry on, Bono will carry on, the business will carry on – and so will we.