(Photo: Peter Hutchins)

Edgefield Concerts on the Lawn
Troutdale, OR

With the recent passings of David Bowie, Prince and Tom Petty, the gods of rock seem very mortal these days. We are reaching a point where many of the original rock ‘n’ rollers are transitioning out of this world or just too old to perform. Pretty soon all we’ll have left is Keith Richards.

This is where the blues come in. The blues allows musicians to age gracefully, bowing out without the onus of sex, drugs or on-stage acrobatics. As a genre, the blues calls for a lived-in voice, for the musician to have seen some shit and live to tell the tale. Bob Dylan has segued into the blues, well-aware that rock ‘n’ roll is a young man’s game. Who wants to listen to a Jonny Lang when music by Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters exists?

Mortality was on my mind when watching Robert Plant and the Sensational Shape Shifters, along with opener Lucinda Williams, at Edgefield. The former Led Zeppelin vocalist will turn 70 in August, while Williams turned 65 back in January. In front of a sold-out audience on a gorgeous summer night, both performers embraced the blues, proving there is still relevance in the upper echelons of age.

Williams could have spent the summer celebrating the 20th anniversary of her seminal album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, playing it straight through as artists are wont to do these days. However, Williams is still recording well-reviewed albums and her 45-minute set touched on songs from throughout her career including “West Memphis” from 2014 album Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone and “Changed the Locks,” the 1988 song that Petty would later cover. Since music has been a man’s game, we don’t have many examples of how time and use can change a female singer’s voice. Like Dylan, Williams’ voice has grown grittier with time, not nearly as lithe as on her early recordings. She used it to her advantage though, especially on an absolutely blistering version of “Essence” and the set-closing “Joy.”

Though Led Zeppelin is often credited with being one of the first metal bands, look beneath the hood and you’ll hear the blues. Plant proved this point by kicking off his performance with a version of “When the Levee Breaks” that was all blues. Unlike many of his peers, Plant’s voice sounds mostly untouched by time, even if he is no longer the golden god of rock that seduced audiences back in the ‘70s.
Plant continuously has been releasing albums since the dissolution of Zeppelin, but five of his 13 songs that evening were ones he once recorded with his former band including an absolutely amazing, nine-minute take on “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” featuring guitarist John Baggot. Though Plant is touring behind the album Carry Fire, he only elected to play three songs from that release. Instead, the music careened from blues standards (“Fixin’ to Die”) to side projects he did with Jimmy Page (“Please Read the Letter”).

With both Plant and Williams reaching towards 70, it’s easy to wonder how many more tours each will mount. The appreciative crowd cheered the loudest for the Led Zeppelin tunes – “Going to California” seeing the biggest show of iPhone recording- and it’s nice that Plant honors that portion of his career than focus only on his solo material. By the time he finished with a “Bring It on Home/Santianna/Whole Lotta Love” medley, everyone in the front were up on their feet and singing along. The blues may be sad, but this particular concert was nothing short of celebratory.

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