In "Tin Pan Valley," a new song Robert Plant offered Sunday at the Greek Theatre outlining his effort to escape the pull of nostalgia, the former Led Zeppelin front man sang "My peers may flirt with cabaret, some fake the rebel yell."
A not-so-veiled reference to Rod Stewart and stuck-in-the-past veterans, it might have been the key line of the evening, but it was easy to miss because it was one of the few understated moments in the nearly two-hour show.
Plant has been keeping the Zeppelin flame burning pretty steadily over the years, and he kept it stoked Sunday -- not, however, as a rigid preservationist but as a rigorous revisionist, giving the iconic rock band's vintage material new twists that range from small tweaks to full renovations. He outfitted "No Quarter" with African hand drums and a sensuous rhythm, transforming the 1973 track from an icy ballad into an equatorial reverie. Later, he and his five-member band added a little shuffle and swing to "Black Dog."
The real news this time around is that he has some new music that can give these formidable audience favorites a run for their money. In the process, they've freed Plant from the shackles of the past.
"It's an opportunity for me to say, 'Hey, our age group and our generation who once turned the world on its head upside down and round again, some of us really do still have something to say," the Englishman said in an interview earlier this week.
"Mighty Rearranger," which came out in May, is the 56-year-old musician's first album of new material since "Fate of Nations" in 1993, and its flavorful mix of blues-based rock riffing and African elements, along with some pointed and potent lyrics, has brought him the best reviews and most attention in a solo career that began in 1982.
Asked if he'd tried harder this time, Plant laughed.
"No, I'm always trying," he said. "But the thing is, I just found way more of an identity and focus for the entire project, musical, lyrical and I suppose cerebral in a way.... It's a very well-intended and focused combination of ideas."
Plant was so confident in the album, which he recorded with his current band Strange Sensation, that he even made a pilgrimage in March to the South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas. The convention is the country's major gathering of the indie-rock world, a place that has always been foreign territory for the former rock titan.
"I was trying to open it up as much as I can," Plant said. "I think there's a tendency ... to think that there's a point chronologically where everybody drifts around in middle age, wandering and presenting coiffured pieces of memorabilia.
"I just don't see that as a raison d'etre. So I wanted to go wherever it was that I could, to just let people know that this is an absolutely real and tangible project that probably is carrying a lot more metal and weight than the Identikit stuff that's around us at the moment."
Plant may be musically engaged with the present, but as a vocalist he hasn't substantially changed his stripes. They really don't make them like this anymore -- a singer with a voice that can rattle the heavens and the bravado to send it into battle against the big themes: war, death, the void, the mysteries of the heart.
Its metallic shine, urgent tremble and bottomless reserves of power have been instilled in a generation's genetic code, and just some faint, teasing echoes of it in the pre-show fanfare stirred the crowd's anticipation for something epic.
They got it, and not just from "Whole Lotta Love" and "When the Levee Breaks" but also from the insistent, monumental climactic passages of "Tin Pan Valley" and the lean, sinewy rhythms of "Freedom Fries," another "Mighty Rearranger" rocker.
Throughout the show, Plant struck a stance that was playful about himself and his image, serious about his legacy and the music, and respectful of his audience. The crowd, which reflected a surprisingly wide age range, was clearly primed for the classics but was also attentive and responsive to Plant's new offerings.
"I can't say we're having the most amazing resurgence," he said in the interview, describing the U.S. tour that would conclude with the Greek show. "But there's something happening where it feels like there's much more acceptability from the youth culture than there was....
"This means that the concerts are becoming much more animated and the crowd are getting a lot more involved. People are getting excited; there's some screaming going on. It's got its own life now. If it wasn't like that I wouldn't be here."