ROBERT PLANT & THE SENSATIONAL SPACE SHIFTERS
State Theatre, March 23
I’ll preface this by saying they were genuinely exciting moments: pleasures buried deep in our collective consciousness; visceral charges still capable of stirring aged loins and limbs; damn fine songs of ye blues and rock and eternal youth.
However, a measure of things worth noting – worth repeating, and indeed celebrating – about Robert Plant in concert is that the bare handful of Led Zeppelin songs played were the least interesting parts of the night. Instead the night belonged to the space between folk musics of several continents, between American blues and its African antecedents, between a taste for the roots of the past and no fear of an electronic future.
Yes, Whole Lotta Love, with drummer David Smith showing he could pummel just as well as he had subtly shifted rhythms or scurried across the kit, charged the encore. Misty Mountain Hop, even if a little beyond Plant’s voice these days, swung as much in its verses as it pleased in its folk breakdown with Seth Lakeman (who had been a fine opening act a few hours earlier) on prominent fiddle. And That’s The Way felt in its element hovering between airy folk and a kind of jangly country.
And it will surprise no one that the audience were at their most vocal, their most engaged, for those sections. Which is fair enough; that’s what got them here after all. Though unlike the 2013 tour – staged, perhaps not coincidentally, in much bigger venues - Plant is not being promoted on the posters as “the voice of Zeppelin” with its attendant promise of a lot of back catalogue work.
A better description for the restless figure who may infuriate at least one former band member, and any number of fans, for his bloody-minded reluctance to get back into Zeppelin mode might be “the inquisitive mind of Zeppelin”.
A mind here aided and abetted by the likes of guitarists (and banjo, and electric oud players) Skin Tyson and Justin Adams who exchanged lines and emphasis like a high-end buy-and-swap meet, and yet could still punch holes when asked; keyboardist John Baggott who could infiltrate electronica or just provide the touch of bar or church; and Lakeman – effectively taking over the extra colour role played by riti player Juldeh Camara five years ago - who showed he was at ease in the roots music of both sides of the Atlantic.
There was fluid reflection in All The King’s Horses and a kind of astral folk blues in Little Maggie, pan-African settings through Carry Fire matched with some chewable, slightly psychedelic folk in The May Queen, and nods to both mountains and valleys in the sometimes mesmerising Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You, while we caught snaking hips and power in Rainbow.
In fact, the only direct connection to the 2013 show in a setlist without a single song in common was Bukka White’s Fixin’ To Die which could be said to stand in for White’s Funny In My Mind from that tour. Here Fixin’ To Die was given a kind of South London-meets-Chicago shape, riding on the simple groove of bassplayer Billy Fuller, whose work was mighty all night, even if done mostly in the shadows.
He may be a little more bowed, a little less secure on his skinny legs, more grey than golden of (still long and luxuriant) locks, and no longer going for those soaring runs and trills, but the most important part of Robert Plant still works at full bore: that busy, restless, satisfying mind.
Robert Plant plays the Sydney Opera House on March 26 and 27; Byron Bay Blues Festival on March 30; Palais Theatre, Melbourne, April 1 and 2; Thebarton Theatre, Adelaide, April 5; and Riverside Theatre, Perth, April 8.