April 02, 2013

Robert Plant

Filed under: 2013,Archive,Music

March 30, 2013

Old Graft, Green Shoots

Robert Plant
Adelaide Entertainment Centre
March 26.

Murray Bramwell

What do you do when you have already climbed the stairway to top-of-the-charts heaven, when you have hopped to the top of the misty mountain  ?  As part of Led Zeppelin, one of the most successful rock bands of all time, what was lead singer, Robert Plant, going to do when it was over ?

After the sudden death of drummer John “Bonzo” Bonham , Led Zeppelin disbanded in December 1980. They were the second highest selling band in US music history, shipping somewhere between 200 and 300 million records (all albums, they refused to release singles).  They epitomised mega rock. Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page were the prototype poodle rock stars – big hair, big egos and a gigantic, carefully constructed sound that, quite literally, altered the sound of everything that followed.

They were credited with inventing, or at least perfecting, the music known as hard rock. They set in motion the relentless 40 year flow of heavy metal – now fragmented into such metallurgical sub-sets  as thrash, death, nu and metalcore.  And when the form was lampooned in the brilliant mockumentary,  Spinal Tap, it was Plant and Page who looked like prime suspects.

But for all the pyrotechnics and foppish strutting, Led Zeppelin ‘s music was far more, as we say nowadays – nuanced. The acoustic layering, the melodic light and shade, the romantic, bardic lyrics, were more like that of folk rock. Not surprisingly – since Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones both played on such acid folk classics as Donovan’s Sunshine Superman. Nor should it be forgotten that it was Robert Plant who, encouraging the band to retreat to the remote Welsh cottage known as Bron-Yr-Aur, wrote lyrics laced with references to Celtic mythology and JRR Tolkien. He even had a dog named Strider.

In a long and varied solo career Robert Plant has traversed both familiar  rock territory (with albums such as Now and Zen and Manic Nirvana), and the other road – acoustic folk and world music influences – as in the under-rated  Fate of Nations and Dreamland, albums full of Plant originals as well as covers of Tim Hardin, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Tim Buckley and Moby Grape’s Skip Spence. Equally inspired (and far more celebrated ) was Raising Sand,  his 2007 collaboration with country singer Alison Krauss which gathered plaudits, Grammys and a whole new audience for his grainy vocal harmonies and Wolverhampton-Nashville sensibility.

On tour in 2013 with his Sensational Space Shifter Band, with a line-up (and setlist) not too different from his 2006 Strange Sensation travelling  players, Robert Plant is a musician with nothing left to prove. He has nibbled more forbidden fruit than almost anyone in the later 20th century, he made money when managers like Zep’s Peter Grant reversed the flood of profits back to the bands, he has continued to make terrific music and, apparently, can take or leave offers such as the rumoured quarter of a billion dollars waved under the noses of the three surviving Led Zeppelin members to take on a world tour and fight one last battle of Evermore.

On stage this week at the Entertainment Centre, Robert Plant is relaxed and roguishly affable. He once looked like a Botticellian angel or a pre-Raphaelite prince. Now, with his long, crimped straw-coloured hair and Vandyke beard, he could be a Cavalier survivor from the court of James II. He is almost 65, and looking wrinkly – but every line in his face is a smile. He is charming from the first note, hunched over the microphone ready to release that big voice – now  half an octave lower, perhaps – to an audience enthralled just  to lay eyes on him.

He opens with Heartbreaker – from Led Zeppelin II . The vocals are wrapped in echo and reverb and the lyrics register as fragments – “…see how the fellas lay their money down …another guy’s name when I try to make love to you…Give it to me…Go away, Heartbreaker. “ The vocals are enveloped in the heavy rhythm sound of the Space Shifters – woozy, hypnotic  keyboards, percussive drumming and thrumming guitar. No screaming Fender Telecaster  leads , instead, an insistent, brooding bass and thud.  Plant segues into Tin Pan Valley, its scathing satire on the life of retired celebrity mostly lost in the mix while everyone gets their bearings.

It is the opening lines of Ramble On – “Leaves are falling all around. It’s time I was on my way …” that registers with the crowd and the set begins to find its thread. Plant greets the punters and in his clipped, not-very-Midlands-anymore accent, announces Another Tribe. Guitarist Justin Adams lays out his acoustic riff, John Baggott generates the squelchy keyboards and Plant glides and sashays, upending the mike stand and expertly pitching his trademark vocals. He is a cool performer- no unbecoming Jaggerisms here. He is circumspect and restrained in his moves;  it is like a courtly dance – all bows and scrapes and the gentlest self-irony.  He is delivering the goods and having fun but nobody is pretending it’s 1974.

Blues music was always central to Led Zeppelin, as to the Yardbirds, Stones, Animals and others who preceded them. On stage Plant invokes the names of Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson and the sixties blues revival performers Son House and Skip James. He describes them as Black Angels and muses on the fact that he is now the age they were when they were re-discovered and returned to the concert circuit.

He doesn’t mention Willie Dixon whose family sued Zeppelin for its wholesale appropriation of his tunes and lyrics and were meagrely compensated in an out-of-court settlement. The Space Shifters chug into one of his most famous compositions all the same. Spoonful – and it is one several highlights of the night.  West African musician Juldeh Camara joins the band onstage reminding us perhaps that the blues didn’t originate in the Delta but came from the continent where so many Africans were captured and transported. Camara adds his ritti, a single stringed African violin, to the insistent Spoonful riff and later in the extended jam,  Liam “Skin” Tyson’s spicy guitar  is replaced by Camara’s  distinctive kologa – an African form of the banjo.

A cluster of big hits follows.  Black Dog,  with its instantly recognisable opening chords and  blues bragger lyrics – “Hey mama, said the way you move, gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove…” The band are in full form – but the force is in the drum and bass (the excellent Dave Smith and Billy Fuller) and, as in many songs, with bodhran, inventive keyboard fills  and acoustic guitars. There are intense bursts of electricity from Tyson,  but the effect is of thunderous skiffle. It is reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s electric string band from the Modern Times tour.

Not everyone is well pleased. Someone in the row behind me laments the absence of Jimmy Page. Certainly, there is none of his brilliant guitar flash, delivered as he languidly slouches against the Marshalls, lips curled into that Aleister Crowley sneer. But these Space Shifters have shape-shifted an old song and refreshed it – as they do, with Justin Adams on mandolin, in the melodic reading of Going to California that follows.

The Enchanter (from the aptly named Mighty Re-Arranger album) is given a fine stretch – the music wafting and beguiling, Plant at his most relaxed, crooning and keening as only he can. It is back to the blues with an extended version of Bukka White’s hell-hounded lament, Fixing to Die, and then the band steps up another level to fill the roof with Whole Lotta Love – in medley with the Bo Diddley classic Who do You Love ?

For the encore it is Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp and, with Plant’s amiable intro – “Here is the answer to all things complicated : Simple !” – it is one last go-round with Rock and Roll. “Carry me back, baby…it’s been a long time, been a long time. “ Yes, it has, and the faithful old trolls, as he jokingly called his sit-down audience, needed to hear the old refrains. However, Robert Plant and his Sensational Space Shifters not only gave us things borrowed and blue, they were also unexpected and refreshingly new.


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