By Steve Dollar
ATLANTA — Dinosaurs walked the earth again in Atlanta over the weekend, causing a ruckus in the city’s bigger music venues and proving, as if promoters of three heavily attended concerts didn’t already know, that old rock stars never quite become extinct.
In fact, they’re a hardier species than anyone might have imagined.
Certainly Robert Plant, trim, tanned, golden locks flowing, seemed to have lost little to the years Sunday night at the Fox Theatre, where he playfully acknowledged near-religious devotion from a full house of excitable fans. Performing with his five-piece band in a show complete with a psychedelic backdrop and lighting effects, the former Led Zeppelin vocalist still toys with the trappings that made him a demigod of 1970s rock and a precursor to such ’90s bad boys as Axl Rose and Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes (the latter, whom, coincidentally, Plant dedicated “I’m in the Mood”). Yes, the singer was capable of the upper register wails, gestures toward hippie mysticism and hairy-chested, crotch-bulging swagger for which he remains celebrated even by audience members not of legal drinking age. But even during a generous selection of Led Zep tunes — “Ramble On,” “Thank You,” “Goin’ to California” and “What Is and What Should Never Be” – Plant never took himself too seriously. He looked like a man who enjoys his job.
THAT DARN DAN: By contrast, songwriters Walter Becker and Donald Fagen last punched the clock as co-founders of Steely Dan in the late 1970s, when the pair dissolved one of that decade’s singular acts and disappeared into the haze.
Pop’s own mutant elitists, the Dan brought topside some of the subversive impulses that drove the more interesting sub-currents of ’70s rock. Fagen, who was as cool and cynical as a film noir refugee with a postgraduate degree in English lit made an ideal match with Becker’s hippie-nerd perfectionism. And both men had their ears cocked to transmuting the chords and harmonics of blues and jazz into intellectually bent Top 40.
Save for some road trips early in the band’s career, the pair never toured. So Saturday’s reunion concert at The Omni presented an odd situation, tapping into an audience’s nostalgia for a group most fans had never seen.
The lack of context cast the show into the vacuum of a time capsule. Fortunately, the musicianship excelled.
Between a savvy saxophone trio (Chris Potter, Bob Sheppard and original Danster Cornelius Bumpus), master drummer Peter Erskine, vibes player Bill Ware and pianist Warren Bernhardt, the band could’ve handled a straight-up hard bop date. The instrumental preludes that opened both sections of the show suggested both the orchestral perversity of vintage Frank Zappa and the graceful lilt of jazz composer Charlie Haden.
Mostly, the 2 1/2-hour concert smelled like middle-aged spirit. It provided Fagen the opportunity to play fairly seamless selections from his two solo albums — The Nightfly and the new, cyber-conceptual Kamakiriad — and featured a couple of new Becker tunes destined for a solo album. (Scores of listeners took these as a cue to flock to the restrooms, a good idea).
Becker and Fagen hit most of the high points from the duo’s last two albums, Aja and Gaucho. Yet, the performance lacked the bite to match its impeccable musical chops. Unless a cheesy, big-band version of “Reeling in the Years” was intended as a joke.