'Voice of Zeppelin' shinesMusic
Still got it: Robert Plant. Photo: AP
Entertainment Centre, March 28
You might be excused for thinking that Robert Plant has some "issues", either with his past or with his past band, that little beat combo Led Zeppelin. After all, much to the consternation of his bandmates (and many promoters with big, big dollar signs in their eyes) he refused to play more Zeppelin shows after their astonishingly good 2007 one-off reformation show. Instead he went on to make a second album of Americana/folk (the excellent Band Of Joy which followed on from the Grammy-winning Raising Sand) and talked, as ever, about moving on.
However, this tour with his band the Sensational Shape Shifters has him promoted as “the voice of Zeppelin”, with the poster a boldly colourful interpretation of his classic golden god look of the 1970s, and the set list has no tracks from those two Americana albums but is dominated by Zeppelin songs. What's going on?
What's going on is further proof that Plant is far more imaginative, playful and adventurous than any cliche of a clumping old rocker, a man who's absorbed all the music he's loved and played and sought out the musicians to explore that. For a start he has a band capable of power when needed but the flexibility and talent to glide from African rhythms to Arabic shapes to Moog-enhanced electronica and down into the blues via American roots. Bassplayer Billy Fuller, drummer Dave Smith, keyboardist and sound manipulator John Baggott and lead guitarist Skin Tyson offer all that and more, superbly. Then there's the extra colourings added by guitarist/producer Justin Adams, whose knowledge of African music is immeasurable, and Gambian Juldeh Camara, mostly on the bowed, two-stringed riti and occasionally on keening vocals.
In their hands Black Dog was slinky and curvaceous before becoming an almost spiritual moment as Camara's voice took it high and Whole Lotta Love reconfigured itself as the solo was played on that incongruous but oddly perfect riti; Friends had the smell of the hookah about it while Four Sticks was heavy modern psychedelia in the mould of At The Drive-In); Going To California felt like Joni Mitchell backed by the Beatles playing folk while Bukka White's Funny In My Mind was hyper-muscular rockabilly; jazz topped and tailed What Is And What Should Never Be and Heartbreaker devolved into a compelling, swirling Can-like groove.
Although Plant joked that the audience deserved a reward for an evening playing "spot the tune" in the manner of modern Bob Dylan audiences - not the first or last self-mocking gag he delivered – the truth was the majority of the room lapped it up. This was invigorating and anything but predictable, a reward in itself. If his hints of a Zeppelin tour next year are fulfilled, well, fantastic, but here was more proof that Plant is more than his past.
Robert Plant plays at the Byron Blues and Roots Festival over Easter