See more of the story

You have to give Robert Plant credit for his honesty, if not for his memory.

When the golden-godly Led Zeppelin frontman made the standard "It's good to be back in Iowa" comment early in his set Monday night at the Surf Ballroom, someone in the crowd yelled back asking when he last performed in the state.

"I have absolutely no [bleeping] clue," he replied.

At least Monday's appearance at the historic dancehall in Clear Lake (two hours straight down I-35 from Minneapolis) was one that Upper Midwest fans and maybe Plant and his band the Sensational Space Shifters won't easily forget.

The 71-year-old singer was the latest and arguably the biggest in a string of Rock and Roll Hall of Famers to stop into the Surf, seemingly as a before-we-die homage of sorts to the late rock pioneers killed in a plane crash a gig there 60 years ago. Other recent visitors to 85-year-old, 2,000-person, time-capsule-like ballroom have included George Clinton and P-Funk, ZZ Top, Cheap Trick and both Brian Wilson and the Mike Love-led Beach Boys.

After dropping in a shout-out to the Big Bopper during a rockabilly-flavored version of the blues classic "Fixin' to Die" earlier in his 100-minute set, Plant finally opened up at show's end about it being a special gig for him. He explained that it was a way to "brighten things up" as he and the band neared the end of their two-year touring cycle behind their last album, "Carry Fire."

"The people who've fixed this place up have reintroduced a lot of people to the magnificent music of the late-'50s," he said, recounting how much the music of Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens meant to him as a kid when all he had was "the terrible stuff played on the radio in England."

He went on to call Valens "one of my favorite singers back then," and then delivered what he said was his favorite song by the Los Angeles hitmaker, "Bluebirds Over the Mountain," which is also featured on the "Carry Fire" album. It was a truly golden moment. His band's newly added violinist/singer Lillie Mae – a Jack White protégé out of Nashville – sang it with him serenely the way Alison Krauss and Patty Griffin have accompanied him on some of his past outings.

The rest of Plant's band members had plenty of moments in the Surf spotlight, too, adding a moody, lightly electronic ambience to the show opener "When the Levee Breaks" and putting an almost hillbilly-esque spin on the '80s solo hit "In the Mood," including some ace banjo fills. Their eclectic and drawn-out instrumentation got a little too "Riverdance"-y at times, like the New Age-y Celtic vibe they brought to "Little Maggie" or the meandering acoustic guitar soloing during "Going to California."

Plant let the audience fill in half the vocals on the latter tune as well as the playfully swinging, violin-laced "Black Dog." However, he still showed a decent amount of his old vocal power in "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You" and the encore finale "Ramble On."

He and the Sensational Space Shifters are playing another show at a well-liked venue in our relative vicinity Wednesday, the Bluestem Amphitheater in Moorhead. As for the resilient Surf Ballroom, it has upcoming shows on the books by Gov't Mule (Thursday), the Eli Young Band (Oct. 11), and Midland (Oct. 24). The venue's social-media accounts are worth following for announcements of shows like Monday's big gig, which predictably sold out right away -- and was definitely worth the drive.