Like every well-worn rock ‘n roll story, Robert Plant’s has definite touchstones. He possesses one of the genre’s finest voices. He’s the original golden god who, with Led Zeppelin, defined what it is to be a rock star. He’s not one for nostalgia, turning his back on lucrative reunions to focus on creating music that pays no heed to genre. He loves Morocco, Wolverhampton Wanderers, and having a pint in his North London local
But he could also be considered something of an anthropologist or musicologist. Clearly fueled by an innate curiosity, Plant is well versed in the musical evolutions of North Africa and the Deep South in particular. It’s a passion that comes through not just in his vibrant renditions of roots evergreens, but also in what he jokingly calls “a little trite conversation” between songs.
A tribute to Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter precedes a rowdy bluegrass rendition of Gallows Pole (as featured on Led Zeppelin III). A brief, but vivid take on Bukka White’s back story leads into dirt-under-the-fingernails homage Funny In My Mind (I Believe I’m Fixin’ To Die) from Plant’s 2002 Dreamland LP. And a quick recap of the self-contained 1920s Appalachian music scene (“They kept playing the same old f***ing songs.”) allows him to take a swipe at certain people from his past and, more importantly, introduce his transcendent genre-melting-pot arrangement of Little Maggie (as first heard on 2014’s lullaby and…The Ceaseless Roar).
With equal confidence, and a hint of Middle Eastern seasoning, he makes Richard Thompson’s House Of Cards completely his own (as per 2010’s Band Of Joy), while Joan Baez’s Babe I’m Gonna Leave You is revived in its full Led Zeppelin I guise, albeit with more vocal power, colour, and nuance than Plant could muster when he first tackled it in 1968.
His own compositions get a makeover too. Misty Mountain Hop, which he aligns with the current sense of unhappiness towards those in power, is almost unrecognisable. As he sings faster over a less rigid musical arrangement, the song sounds more contemporary and volatile than it has since 1971.
Even one of the most instantly recognisable songs ever, Whole Lotta Love, gets a shake up. Jimmy Page’s iconic riff remains untouched but, instead of taking a detour into a ‘60s acid trip, the instrumental breakdown bit heads towards North Africa, effortlessly aligning the almost-50-year-old classic with Plant’s current aesthetic.
That aesthetic is epitomised tonight by his originals from this decade. New World…, which opens the show, pairs a dreamy vocal with an unstoppable rhythm. The changeable Turn It Up is all big bluesy riffs, off-kilter rhythms, and a rockabilly guitar solo. The May Queen pairs fiddle and hillbilly folk guitar with synth drones and tribal beats.
The joyous Rainbow melds the percussive stomp of Bendir hand drums and shimmering guitar licks. And the ethereal title track of his new LP, Carry Fire, begins with a distinctly Arabesque guitar and hypnotic groove, before catching alight with some violin virtuosity that leads to a big rock finale.
Such fluidity is only possible because Plant has a truly mercurial band. Not just shifters of space (bringing together music from across the world) but time (uniting the old and the new), the Sensational Space Shifters are the perfect embodiment of the singer’s wandering spirit.
Justin Adams is as comfortable playing a kologo as he is hitting the body of his guitar to create some good old fashioned power chords. Liam Tyson is just as capable of flamenco flourishes as putting his own spin on a classic Page riff. Surrounded on three sides by keyboards and synths, trip-hop veteran John Baggott makes playing two instruments at once seem like a doddle. And the rhythm section of bassist Billy Fuller and drummer Dave Smith hold it all together across ever-changing time signatures.
Tonight the band are periodically complemented by support act Seth Lakeman on violin and (for the duet Bluebirds Over the Mountain as well as The Pretenders’ 2000 Miles) Chrissie Hynde. But it’s the core quintet who deserve all the glory. And frequently even Plant himself can’t help but stand aside and watch them perform, looking enchanted, fascinated, like the musical anthropologist he clearly is.
Live review of Robert Plant @ Royal Albert Hall by Nils van der Linden on 8th December 2017. Photos by Simon Reed.