• Image about Robert Plant
photographs by Gregg Delman
After the 1980 dissolution of Led Zeppelin, the singer returned to active service a changed man. It was evident in his voice. On his 1982 solo debut, Pictures at Eleven, Plant’s vocal style no longer recalled a thermonuclear explosion inside a volcano. Instead, the singer drew from life experiences to lay down emotionally intimate performances on highly experimental albums such as The Principle of Moments and Shaken ’n’ Stirred. “I was so determined to get away from the mothership for myself,” Plant says of his efforts to separate himself from his Zeppelin persona.

The vocalist’s nascent solo career yielded a few hits — “Big Log,” “Little by Little,” “Tall Cool One,” “Hurting Kind” — and a few misses. Now & Zen, for example, a popular record when it was released in 1988, now sounds very then. “When I listen to those things, I smile wryly because I thought I had really made a major breakthrough,” Plant says.

More successful were career highlights such as 1993’s Fate of Nations, 2002’s Dreamland and 2005’s Mighty Rearranger, each of which drew from more organic influences, including North African Blues, trip-hop, folk and psychedelic rock. The albums were anything but Led Zeppelin retreads. To drive the point home, the song “Tin Pan Valley” on Mighty Rearranger includes a scathing observation about fellow artists who coast on nostalgia:

“My peers may flirt with cabaret/
Some fake the rebel yell/
Me, I’m moving up to higher ground/
I must escape their hell.”

Plant shrugs off the implication that his innovation is anything out of the ordinary. “What would have been the point of making records that sounded like a poor man’s Zeppelin all the way through my career?” he asks. “It would have been a pretty brain-numbing experience.”

Given Plant’s resolute independence from his former band and his previous refusal to — as it’s said in music — “get the band back together,” his decision to reunite with Led Zeppelin for a one-time show in 2007 surprised just about everyone.

Plant had previously teamed up with Page during the 1990s for “a great renaissance,” but the partnership dissolved after only two albums. The reason: Plant felt disconnected from their nostalgic concertgoers. But the motivation for the London arena show — featuring John Bonham’s son, Jason, on drums — was different. It was a fundraiser for the educational charity established by Plant’s deceased mentor, Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records.

The concert was a triumph. Looking back on the occasion, the frontman singles out two songs — “Kashmir” and “For Your Life” — as highlights.

“I was thrilled to revisit ‘No Quarter’ again with John [Paul Jones] playing great piano,” Plant recalls. “When [Jimmy] comes in with that sort of staggered introduction to the guitar part, it was a revelation. I was very emotional.”

Plant has since declined a reunion tour, much to the chagrin of Page. When Led Zeppelin disbanded, the band members reasoned that they couldn’t continue without Bonham. Plant insists that the same is still true. “It couldn’t have worked then, so what could have made it work any further down the line?” he says.

When Plant begins touring North America next month, most concertgoers will be primed for something fresh. After all, Plant’s career has gone through more incarnations than Doctor Who and James Bond combined. But the catalyst that drives him hasn’t changed: He’s curious to learn and explore.

“I couldn’t have better teachers,” Plant concludes. “There are still a few nerves, which is good. You can never, ever think you’ve got it down — otherwise you spoil your career.”