Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters
October 4, 2014
Robert Plant's new album, Lullaby and... The Ceaseless Roar
(Nonesuch, 2014), is an atmospheric affair; music suitable for horseback riding at twilight in misty woods while on the lookout for the Headless Horseman. Perhaps the Led Zeppelin
tune most closely matching the feel for many of the songs on the new album is "No Quarter." So it was entirely appropriate that Plant and his Sensational Space Shifters began their concert Saturday night with... "No Quarter." Plant and his band went on to perform five or six (or maybe even seven) more Zeppelin tunes, depending on how you count. More on that later. Most of the rest of the program was drawn from the new album.
Plant formed the Sensational Space Shifters in 2013 after his extended dalliances with Alison Krauss and, later, Patty Griffin whom he married. After about five or six years of harmonizing, he decided to get back to his roots and dig seriously into the blues. The Sensational Space Shifters were actually a reconstituted Strange Sensation, the band he put together for Mighty Rearranger
(Sanctuary, 2005). The new band swapped out drummers with the old one and added an African multi-instrumentalist, Juldeh Camara, to further develop a world beat sound to augment the ever present blues. Lacking a new album, last year's Space Shifters tour featured plenty of reimagined Zeppelin tunes interspersed with a number of tunes from Mighty Rearranger
. Now with a new album, the 2014 tour swapped out the Mighty Rearranger
tunes for new ones.
But, as he has for many years now, Plant reworked a number of Zeppelin chestnuts. If it's possible, Saturday night's version of "No Quarter" was even spookier than the original. In contrast, "Ramble On" had a sunny, stroll-through-the-park feel; interrupted occasionally by violent hailstorms. Actually, that sun/storm contrast was a technique that Zeppelin used with some frequency and two other examples of that were on Saturday night's bill. "What Is and What Should Never Be," which, like "Ramble On" was originally on Led Zeppelin II
(Atlantic, 1969) switched back and forth from the mellow to the manic, as did "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" from Led Zeppelin I
(Atlantic, 1969). The upbeat sides of these tunes were the closest Plant's current band got to the trademark Zeppelin heaviness, with the possible exception of "Whole Lotta Love."
Led Zeppelin's primary influence in the early days was the blues. Saturday night's show drew heavily from that genre. After finishing "No Place to Go," Plant credited Howlin' Wolf
with writing it. However, the song also formed the basis for Zeppelin's "How Many More Times," another one from the first album, with the lyrics declaring, "How many more times you gonna treat me like you do?" So does that count as a Zeppelin cover? Another blues cover Saturday night with Zeppelin overtones was "Fixin' to Die," a Bukka White composition. This one never appeared on a Zeppelin studio album, but in concert they often threw it into the middle of "Whole Lotta Love" along with other blues classics.
Speaking of "Whole Lotta Love" and blues classics, Saturday night's rendition of that hit from the second album featured gems like "She's 19 Years Old," "I Just Want to Make Love to You," "Who Do You Love?" and the main tune's inspiration, Willie Dixon
's "You Need Love."
Many of the songs from the new album had more of a folk music feel (although Plant said everything he was playing was "folk music" which, in a sense, is true). The evening's closer, "Little Maggie" was a good example. Plant explained it was a tune from the Great Smokey Mountains, but it probably really came from England. Perhaps that view could be chalked up to his English heritage, but much of the music indigenous to Appalachia can be traced back to the UK. A Zeppelin classic that fit this mold, at least sonically, was "Going to California."
Much of Ceaseless Roar
has a Celtic meets Africa vibe, but the blues are ever present, of course. One of the early selections Saturday night was "Poor Howard" from the new album. It's a song the album explains is derived from "Po' Howard," a Leadbelly
tune. "Turn it Up" is one of the better tracks on the new album and it also appeared early Saturday night. Plant sang about driving around America on "Charley Patton highway" a reference to an early blues pioneer. He also bemoans that, "I'm stuck inside the radio/Turn it on and let me out!" A reference to the continuing popularity of Led Zeppelin on the radio, even all these years later?
So what about that Led Zeppelin reunion tour? At least some of his old band mates seem interested. The public certainly is. But apparently not Plant. After all, it's all been done already. Live Zeppelin is well documented with the 2003 double DVD set of numerous concerts, How the West Was Won
(Atlantic, 2003), a triple CD of 1972 concerts in California, BBC Sessions
(Atlantic, 1997), double CD of live performances in 1969 and 1971, among others. And for those interested in seeing the band members in their later years (with Jason Bonham filling in on drums), there's the 2007 concert at the O2 arena. So a Led Zeppelin reunion tour would be a spectacle, but the audience would expect arrangements very similar to the originals. And where's the fun in that? Maybe it's better this way: let Plant be Plant, get some new music and enjoy his rearrangements of those old classics.