By Brian Ives
When you go to see a Robert Plant performance in 2014, here’s what you won’t get: a “Get the Led Out” show, coasting on the glories of the Led Zeppelin discography. If you’re looking to hear the Zep songs arranged the way you remember them, there’s a myriad of tribute bands you can catch (may we suggest Lez Zeppelin?). These days, and for a long time now, Plant plays the music that he wants to play, with the people he wants to play it with.
But what you also won’t get is a guy in denial of his past and of the things that made him an icon in the first place.
At the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) this past Saturday (Sept. 27)—the second show on his U.S. tour to support his latest album, the excellent lullaby and… the Ceaseless Roar—it was obvious that Plant is unconcerned with the size of his paycheck. He could easily make millions by reuniting with Zeppelin whenever he wants to, or with Alison Krauss, for that matter. He also seemed unconcerned with where his music fits in to the pop culture zeitgeist in 2014. And he, his band, and whoever opts to attend his concerts, are all the better for it.
That’s because at his shows these days, there are absolutely zero moments of perfunctory performance. Nothing sounds tired, nothing sounds rote. Plant seems equally interested in reimagining Zeppelin classics as he is in playing his new songs and doing new interpretations of blues chestnuts.
A the BAM show last night, all of the songs he performed fit into one of the above categories. His solo catalog—including his recent forays into Americana—were nowhere to be found.
Plant and his band, the well-named Sensational Space Shifters (Justin Adams on guitars and other stringed instruments, backing vocals; Juldeh Camara on an African fiddle called a ritti, backing vocals; Lim “Skin” Tyson on guitar, banjo, backing vocals; John Battott on keyboards, backing vocals; Billy Fuller on bass; and Dave Smith on drums) entered the BAM stage to the sounds of Link Wray’s “Rumble” (a song that one of Plant’s former bandmates is a big fan of as well) with the swagger of a band that knows they are about to blow minds.
They launched right into a new song, “Poor Howard,” an update of the Leadbelly country blues number “Po’ Howard,” which set the tone for the night. In Robert Plant’s world the blues are still alive, they’re still a source of inspiration for modern interpretation, and they can still still lead to unexpected places (Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter probably never imagined his song powered by an African ritti).
A version of Zeppelin’s “Thank You” followed, but as with all the Zep numbers, the Sensational Shape Shifters stretched the song in an interesting new way (not unlike how Bob Dylan reinterprets his own songs—though Plant’s are at least recognizable, which isn’t always the case with Dylan). Other Zeppelin songs in the set included “Going to California,” “What Is and What Should Never Be,” “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” “Whole Lotta Love,” and Zep’s take on the folk song “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You.”
And just as Zeppelin reinterpreted the latter song and made it a classic, Plant stretched the possibilities of Bukka White’s “Fixin’ To Die” (a song that’s been in his repertoire for a few years now) and Howlin’ Wolf’s “How Many More Years” (which he recast as something that sounded more like the Rascals’ “You Better Run,” a song Plant covered in his pre-Zep days).
Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters do today what Plant did with Led Zeppelin in the ’60s and ’70s: combine different forms of music in powerful new ways. It’s just that today, Plant’s interests include not only blues but African rhythms, Celtic music and electronic music. And as he did with Led Zeppelin, totday he is able to sing with stunning beauty (as on the new piano ballad “A Stolen Kiss” as well as “Thank You”), and his roar is still mighty (the new “Turn It Up,” Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”).
In less capable hands, the blues classics and Led Zeppelin songs could come off as museum pieces. Sure, museums can be great. But as Saturday’s performance proved, in the hands of Plant and his exceptional band, the blues—both the traditional version and Zep’s guitar-heavy take on the genre—is still a living, breathing art form in 2014.
Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters perform additional U.S. dates during their short fall 2014 tour.