Even if I wasn’t on my way to see Robert Plant on a bucolic summer night I could have figured out that the Led Zeppelin singer was in town. Scraggly lines of dudes, for there is no other word that will do for them, amble towards the Berkeley Community Theater wearing their standard regalia, comically worn jeans and concert t-shirts faded to the near transparency for AC/DC, Def Leppard and more exploding dirigibles than the Hindenburg Historical Society. The ladies have shoehorned their ample charms into lace up denim, buttery suede and streetwalker subtle plastic skirts. All talk loudly about the songs they hope to hear. Having checked out the setlists for this tour on-line I don’t have the heart to tell them that they’re shit out of luck given the fairly fixed, limited fare being offered on this tour. Many carry bottles or cans wrapped snugly in brown paper bags. Clichés to be sure but clichés with a pulse. A thirty something guy with a king sized mullet unfurls his t-shirt sleeve to pull out a Marlboro Red which he lights dramatically and then rolls the pack of butts back into its place on his sleeve. I stifle a snicker as I pass. It will not be the last time tonight that laughter will seem the best response.
Out in front of the auditorium, the central meeting space for Berkeley High School when it isn’t a performance venue, a large mob waits in orderly clumps for admission. Four makeshift pagodas for Classic Rock radio stations compete for attention. They pump out the signal from their respective stations and each try to bump the volume up just a hair louder than their neighbor. Sammy Hagar battles with Scorpions while a few feet away Sabbath subdues White Snake. I jokingly hold up my lighter and let the flame rip as I wave at the staffer stuck at The Bone’s compound (The Bone bills themselves as “classic rock that rocks”). He yells, “Hell yeah!” and kicks the volume up another notch. The bored drone at the KFOG booth next to him looks severely annoyed. I put the lighter away and resolve that irony isn’t going to float with this crowd.
The wave of dudes and dudettes on the streets have given way to an even scarier constituency, baby boomers, lots & lots & lots of them. I keep hearing news reports that there’s a massive generation of them walking around but I rarely find myself in the same place as several thousand of them. There’s a fair amount of plaid shirts but it comes across as more “Tool Time” than Neil Young. When you’re trying for the aging rebel look it’s probably not a good idea to tuck the shirt into Dockers with a fake leather belt. Mullets still abound but they have a sad Gallagher feel that makes me want to buy baseball caps for the more clueless gents. They bring their kids, teenagers mostly, who seem just as excited as mom & pop about seeing a member of Led Zeppelin. Many wear the same tees as the dudes I passed earlier but these are in better shape, treasured and cared for. Their musical lives seem locked completely into times gone by and I want to tell them about all the good things happening right now outside of what gets exposure on commercial radio stations and television. I don’t because I feel like an alien among them. This is the first mainstream artist I’ve been to in several years, the first time I’ve rubbed shoulders with the kind of crowds I grew up around in Silicon Valley. Their own dogged attachment to the past carries a gravity that tugs at me, drawing me back through the years. It is an unpleasant feeling to say the least.
Men and women both are drawn to Plant’s massive mojo. If one doubts the man’s appeal to new generations they need only listen to the damp, wiggling anticipation of the 16 year old girls that stood in front of me in line. Even in his fifties Plant still seems composed entirely of erectile tissue and pastoral romantic fantasies in the imagination of his audience. Despite a largely mediocre post-Zep career and the tendrils of age showing in his face he’s managed to hold onto his ‘70s era mystique. Like Austin Powers, women want him and men want to be him.
Alone at this show I speak to few and just take it all in. I’ve come for the opening band and figure curiosity alone will keep me around for the headliner. In a move to branch out beyond their usual fan-base, moe. is opening for the western leg of Plant’s tour. With so many people around me obsessed only with music made in the past I’m wondering how they will react to their sound. I break the silence when I overhear a few people by a water fountain wondering who this ‘Moe’ is. I explain it’s not a ‘he’ but five guys who play their asses off and write terrific songs. The way I blurt it out is utterly uncool and drips with geeky intensity. I slink off without another word and feel the specter of these high school walls drag my spirit back half a lifetime to my own days as a freshman. Feeling every bit the freak I did at 15, I make for my seat in the balcony with a juvenile quickness.
I whisper a quiet thanks to the powers-that-be when the lights dim soon after I sit down. Sandwiched between an off-duty policeman and a boozed up insurance salesman, I shift forward to lean into the music. I’m ready to be delivered from my surroundings. The genuine, easy charm of moe. cheers me even before their first note. They always give me the impression they are sooooooooo happy to be playing music, playing their music, and they'd feel the same way playing in a Greyhound station as they do at the Beacon Theatre.
What I refer to as the ‘pop’ moe. starts the show with a catchy one two punch of “Stranger Than Fiction” and “Gone.” A couple of years back new tunes started to creep into the band’s albums and shows that were short, sharp and toe tappingly groovy. They seem to say, “Sure we can jam until the cows come home but don’t forget we really know how to craft a song that’ll stick in your head.” It’s always odd to see one of my favorite bands play in front of a largely indifferent crowd but these songs have a radio friendly vibe to them that catches a few here tonight. In the darkness I can hear pockets of moe. fans whoop with delight as Chuck Garvey dips into several lyrical, glass smooth solos. His long fingers pull out a slide sound that’s pure and clean, a drink of ice-cold stream water for the ears.
Photo by Mark Lutzker
By the third number the band suddenly remembers who they are and stop trying to woo Plant’s audience. When they do it is like watching human beings fly. At first they stick low to the ground but this is merely take-off velocity being reached. The sparks from the stage carry a smell of lavender and jasmine tea, a journey into some sandy place in the Middle East of the mind. As they move through “So Long” hints of something bigger, one of those carelessly perfect epics moe. excels at, float like downy feathers falling from their wings. At first I’m certain it will be “Meat” but they drop into open space, gliding above water far out to sea and the ass kickingest “Rebubula” unfolds. A trio of fellow moerons behind me (a self effacing name fans of this band have given themselves) leaps to their feet and lets out a holler of unrestrained happiness. I start to rise to join them but the music has me glued into my seat. Eyes drop shut and I feel the updraft of their music beneath me. I smile until my face hurts. I open my eyes to see Al Schnier throw his head back during his guitar solo. With a shaved head he looks like the ambulatory cousin of Professor X and I wonder if he too possesses mental powers one can only guess at. Part of me thinks Al would like this idea and that too pleases me. By the time they come around to the chorus again I am singing along before I even realize it. The words of Rob Derhak’s poetic, peculiar love song pour from small but passionate voices in the hall:
Rip off all my limbs
Poke out both my eyes
Pull out my swollen tongue
Wear a thin disguise
And the Siren’s song
Sweetly sucks me down
Into the ocean blue
I’ll find my way back to you
I find myself thinking of the last time I’d sung those words in the wee wee hours of the morning with thousands in a field beneath a tent. There was more power to our voices that night but there’s no less affection & passion for the band’s music flowing from the fans in Berkeley. Most of the gathered crowd cheers at the end of the tune. The off-duty officer to my left says to his date, “Well, that was something.” I think it’s a compliment and decide not to analyze it further. A goofy, tight “Spine of a Dog” closes their set with its idiot savant nursery rhyme lyrics and cartoon changes.
Between sets I stretch on the open-air decks outside the balcony area where everyone else puffs on cigarettes. Living in California so long I forget how many people still smoke. When one isn’t asked at every restaurant to choose between smoking and non-smoking it’s easy to assume people overall have cut back. Not this crowd. Feeling slightly nauseous from the carbon monoxide I hoof it over to the other deck to see if it’s any better. A foggy wave of fragrant smoke hits me before I even get through the door to the outside. I’ve found the dope deck and breathe deeply. Below the courtyard I see that a homeless throng have been drawn to the lights & noise. Wild babbling elderly paw at the tables for the radio stations making a mess. Dirty teenagers roughly press passersby for money. Too much reality for me so I head back to my seat.
For the first time all night I notice the huge banner behind the stage set, an earthen colored blowup of the latest Robert Plant album cover, Dreamland. After the chaotic burst of the scene outside I think this truly is a dreamland inside this concert hall. Everyone is clean; wealthy enough to pop for the $60 tickets, divorced from the hardships waiting just a few feet away. Berkeley is always a city of contradictions but rarely are they so clearly etched in so small a space.
House lights fade and the screaming begins. Even in silhouette from the back of the hall Robert Plant is recognizable. The band makes a cluttered jumble that passes for a sort of jamming and then up ends into “Ship of Fools.” An impolite chortle bursts from my lips and try as I might I cannot stop laughing for almost a full minute. Much of Plant’s post Zeppelin catalog is giggle inducing bad and this song is chief among them for me. Full of wet eyed sentiment, it moves along at a snail’s pace and contains lyrics the man who wrote “Misty Mountain Hop” should be ashamed to sing. The audience eats it up with an oversized novelty spoon. Each hip shake, each theatrical swoop of a hand sends ripples of oooohs and aaaaahs through the place. Plant has always been as fey & swishy as Freddie Mercury but since he’s also a shameless, boastful womanizer no one ever questions his sexuality. He moves the way many women wish their man would move and even aging hasn’t fully dimmed that Kundalini loosening power. Dressed in a short sleeve striped dress shirt and artfully faded jeans, he looks the spitting image of an uncle to the Barenaked Ladies, you know the one who scores the killer green bud for the band and picks up on the leftover groupies.
They move into “Four Sticks” and ring the bell loudly for Pavlov’s Dogs. And salivate they do. I even join in as the guitars grow heavier and heavier. There are hints of his vintage vocal prowess in sections and I grow hopeful for a decent evening yet. A few songs later Plant introduces the old folk chestnut “Morning Dew” as a song immortalized by the Grateful Dead. This arrangement is like hearing the original Fleetwood Mac version of “Black Magic Woman,” all silvery blues and green highlights. As much as I’m enjoying the considerable musicianship on display I find myself thinking about the Grasshopper’s version of the same tune on their latest album and how much more I like it.
This keeps happening during Plant’s set. My mind wanders away from the music because it simply isn’t that compelling. It is sturdy and the band has serious chops when they want to. But they also have the dead eyed musical precision that I associate with the guys who back Sting. There’s a kind of heartless perfection to their playing that saps the joy out of music for me. I start to notice details besides the notes being played. Two of the band members wear floral print polyester dress shirts that only English guys believe make them look cool. The lead guitarist is the spitting image of R.E.M.’s Pete Buck. Seeing this sparks a reverie about how sweet it would be to hear Buck thrash and wail his way through the Led Zeppelin catalog.
I pull myself from my thoughts and tune back into what’s happening around me. A painfully rehearsed and vocally weak “Goin’ To California” almost makes me get up and leave but the next number, a near perfect reading of “Hey Hey What Can I Do” strikes me upside the head. For the first time all night I find myself swept up in the lovely, blood warm nostalgia. Memory is unlocked as notes pour out, a visceral flashback of orgasms remembered, picnics in Santa Cruz, late nights along Highway 17, and clumsy dorm room gropes. There is such history enfolded into this song and so many songs that Plant and Jimmy Page penned. It is the reason for the genuine love flooding from these people. Memory and music intermingle and despite my cynicism and distance from so much of what I’m hearing I cannot help but feel good as they band plays on.
And just as quickly they lose me. A series of stiff cuts follows spoon-feeding mediocrity out in huge dollops. The final straw comes when Plant tells us the next song is about greed. No one, and I mean no one, who charges this much for a single concert ticket or $30 dollars for a t-shirt or $20 for a 15-page tour program should ever speak of greed. It belies a false sense of one’s own behavior. I’m fine with people who choose riches over other things. It’s not my choice but at least the truly greedy fess up about it. But to watch one of the first rockers to ever really cash in back in the day lecture me about money was too much. I gather my things and make my way out into the night.
The street scene has grown weirder and more vocal. There’s a spooky wailing coming from the cavernous steel construction going on at the campus. The radio stations have packed up and fled to higher ground. I fish out a few dollars and share them with the first needy folks I run into. Moving quickly onto the sidewalk I see a Persian man trying to sell a Siamese cat. Women in saris whisper to one another and avoid making eye contact. Fuzzyheaded punks in new Black Flag tees spare change on the corner. With the spray of color and the cacophony of voices I feel like I’m in a people mover version David Byrne & Brian Eno’s My Life In The Bush of Ghosts. Once again I find myself framing my life in musical terms. I’ve just chosen different ones than the dreamland inside the walls of the Berkeley Community Theatre.
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