Robert Plant ended his headlining hour at "We're Doing It for Love" — a benefit for Arthur Lee, the ailing singer-songwriter of the pioneering Los Angeles band Love, at New York's Beacon Theater on June 23rd — with "Ramble On" from Led Zeppelin II. It was a perfect finale, a thrilling folk-rock gallop with Plant singing of those "days of old, when magic filled the air" with the same excited, forward motion he heard as a teenager in Love's classic mid- and late-Sixties albums. Most of the acts on the bill played at least one Love or Lee song: Nils Lofgren (pictured) put Stratocaster electricity into the flamenco diamond "Alone Again Or," from 1968's Forever Changes. Garland Jeffreys sang "My Little Red Book" acapella, reading the lyrics from — what else? — a little red book. Yo La Tengo flashed their encyclopedic-geek credentials by pulling out "Luci Baines," an homage to then-President Lyndon Johnson's daughter, written and recorded by Lee in 1964 with his pre-Love band the American Four. ("Written" is stretching it; the song was "Twist and Shout" with new lyrics.)
But Plant — working with a band of New York-based players, on two days' rehearsal — truly came for the love of Lee (who is battling leukemia in a Memphis hospital and has no medical insurance). Plant mixed psychedelicized Zeppelin ("In the Evening," "What Is and What Shall Never Be") with a genuine-fans' selection of vintage Love, including the delicate Forever Changes ballad "The Old Man" (Plant acknowledged its writer, Love's late, often overlooked guitarist Bryan MacLean) and a Zeppelin-ized reimagining of "Seven and Seven Is" from 1967's Da Capo (with a surprise tease of Neil Young's "Cowgirl in the Sand"). Plant gave extra credit where credit was due by bringing original Love guitarist Johnny Echols out to reprise his leads on "A House Is Not a Motel" and "Bummer in the Summer." But Plant is a catholic classicist. He followed a dynamic march through Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" with a rowdy duet with Mott The Hoople's Ian Hunter, also on the show — the pair of them making like a heavy-glam Everly Brothers on "When Will I Be Loved." Plant also showed off his big love of Elvis Presley with a startling, credible croon through "I Can't Help Falling in Love With You."
There were some false notes on the long way (four hours) to Plant's midnight set. Flashy Python and the Body Snatchers — a mix of members from Dr. Dog and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, with a bad-Sixties name — sounded like an under-rehearsed side project. Ryan Adams and the Cardinals played raw, hard urban-prairie rock: fine in itself but out of joint with the evening's context. And singer-songwriter Gavin DeGraw, apparently shoehorned onto the bill for no other reason than he was in town that day, was a prolonged irritant, mangling Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" with exaggerated faux-soul. If he'd been there, Lee, legendary for his cantankerous manner and dictatorial quality control, would surely have kicked DeGraw off the stage in mid-woah. But the late payoffs — Lofgren's long guitar-solo revel in Bruce Springsteen's "Because the Night"; Hunter's serving of classic Mott — were worth the wait. And Plant's dedication to the occasion, in performance and song selection, affirmed why Lee is an artist worth celebrating and aiding. Near the end of his version of "Hey Joe," Plant took a detour into "Nature Boy," the pastoral ballad made famous by Nat King Cole, repeating the last lines like both prayer and hurrah: "The greatest thing you'll ever learn/Is just to love and be loved in return."
The best way to do that is while Lee is still here. For donation information and updates on Lee's condition, go to thelovesociety.com.