Over the last few years Plant seems to have assumed an eloquent elder statesman position within rock ‘n’ roll’s tiered galleries. The Robert Plant who fronted his Sensational Space Shifters tonight was a solidly assured, eclectically endowed, and mildly curious leader and performer.
Only shadows of the Golden God idolatory remain: a few trademark mike-stand twirls, the odd pout, a hint of swagger. And yet he still commands attention. Ambling onstage with the band and breezing through first track ‘Turn It Up’ with the minimum of fuss, all eyes fixed on Plant.
And then I noticed Justin Adams on lead guitar. He’d strapped on a beat-up Gibson Les Paul dating from sometime before the war (possibly the American Civil War) and coaxed from it the fattest, richest, blues-soaked riffs anyone could wish to hear. ‘Turn It Up’ is one of the rockiest tracks from the new platter ‘Lullaby ….and the Ceaseless Roar’.
Adams quickly assumed the role of ring-master, twirling his arms after the solo, and then moving centre–stage to eye-ball the crowd and implore for more noise. The guitar sound was complemented by Liam ‘Skin’ Tyson’s 12-string twang from stage left.
All night there was abundant depth and craft to the sound. To my untrained ear, the complexity and layering of influences and rhythms was akin to a musical jigsaw of genres and styles.
The Sensational Space Shifters are a troupe of contemporary troubadours with whom Plant has been gigging for a couple of years, although he and guitarists Adams (Jah Wobble) and Tyson (Cast) have collaborated on a number of projects.
John Baggot (Portishead, Massive Attack) on keyboards weaves in some subtle loops and undertones of trance to the new material. The strong West African influence is led by Juldeh Camara from the Gambia and by Dave Smith on the tubs, an exponent of West African sabar drumming.
There were four tracks aired from the diverse new album dropped in throughout the gig. Alongside set opener ‘Turn It Up’, ‘Rainbows’ was possibly the most direct, with a beautifully almost pop-influenced vocal tenderly delivered by Plant; ‘Pocketful of Golden’, another plaintive, reflective piece with some dirge like qualities (in a good way) with the lyric adrift…high and lonesome hanging in the Roundhouse air; and encore ‘Little Maggie’ which seemed to bring together all the influences, instrumentation and inflections of Plant’s last 10 years or so into one song. It lingered somewhere between stitched-together muddle and creative genius. It shouldn’t have worked but it just about did.
Most punters turn up to a Plant gig wondering which Zep tunes they will hear and how well disguised they will be. No disappointments tonight. Only surprises. The ballad-like ‘Thank You’ from Led Zep II, second track in, was a gem. ‘Going To California’ was a joyous acoustic frenzy played out by the band on traditional west African instruments.
The intro to ‘No Quarter’ was veiled in the strings of a plucked bendir and a scraped ritti until Plant almost cheekily uttered the words Close the door, put out the light/You know they won’t be home tonight. The crowd was stung into life. This was an astonishing version, light years away from the Houses of the Holy original.
The second half of track saw drummer Smith and bassist Billy Fuller locked in a fearsome rhythm exchange of staggering complexity. Fuller did not deviate his gaze from Smith’s flying hands for a full five minutes. Epic.
Perhaps the only Zep track played straight and without deviation or hesitation was ‘Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You’. Plant shook his famous mane and howled to the night. Guitars crunched and swirled a raucous cacophony. “I love you!” screamed a female punter. Was it 1973 again? “Why?” retorted Plant. No it is firmly 2014.
But we were approaching the climax of the evening. Plant recalled gigs at the (now spectacularly restored) Roundhouse pushing 46 years ago and declared his respect for legendary bluesmen he had rubbed shoulders with.
Next up was a stunning version of ‘Fixin’ To Die’ by Bukka White, one of that vanguard. Gorgeous riffs again emanated from Adam’s vintage guitar, and he took centre stage for a staccato solo and lesson in minimalist, high impact picking.
It just had to be ‘Whole Lotta Love’ to close the set. Teasing intro, skull shattering snare set up and that thunderous, celebrated, decorated riff, delivered here in almost perfect copy by Tyson. Plant was in his glorious element and the band were clearly enjoying themselves. The old venue was properly shaking. Even Camera’s kologo two-stringed guitar contribution during the atmospheric middle section seemed to work.
The aforementioned ‘Little Maggie’ brought the curtain down on a great gig, but – always leave ‘em wanting more – couldn’t we have had a little ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ to send us on our way? (Never happy.)
Uplifting, life affirming and diverse. Plant minus the bombast still adds up to a whole lot of entertainment.
Review by Dave Atkinson
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