October 7, 2014
Few voices in rock stand as tall and as memorable as Robert Plant’s. Whether it’s the reverb drenched “aahs” in “Black Dog” or the screaming howl that caps “Whole Lotta Love”, that voice is embedded into the brain of any fan born before 1965, and then some. But Plant has rebooted himself more than a few times since the salad days of his old band and continues to challenge himself as an artist, while neither running from, or towards, his legacy.
Many of Plant’s musical contemporaries will roll along familiar ground until the wheels come off. But not Plant. In his solo career, the Staffordshire born Brit has embraced Americana and roots in recent years with the likes of T-Bone Burnett, Allison Krauss and Patty Griffin, and now turns the planet on its ear fusing world beats and African sounds with his Sensational Space Shifters. Forget reinvention. This is career forged exploration from a man still trying to live the “golden god” moniker down. No phoning it in. Musical bravery, if you ask me.
Plant scheduled a handful of US dates for his “lullaby…and the ceaseless roar” tour, and I was fortunate to catch the start of his one-off set for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in April (he flew in/out from the UK as favor to Quint Davis). A friend who saw last year’s L.A. show mentioned it was not to be missed and he was spot on – a Fest highlight for sure, (not to mention going on opposite Phish’s first Fest performance in 18 years). So, much anticipation getting to one of the few domestic dates at the historic Hollywood Palladium.
The Space Shifters are guitarists Liam Tyson and Justin Adams, augmented by Gambian griot, Juldeh Camara (playing a riti, a single string Gambian ”fiddle”, no less), keyboardist John Baggott, Billy Fuller on bass and drummer Dave Smith. Recent set lists have Plant mixing in acoustically leaning Zeppelin tunes, deep American blues (Howlin’ Wolf, Bukka White, Blind Willie Johnson) and material from “lullaby…”, and he stuck to this path at the Palladium. The place was packed for the occasion – nary a seam in the tight crowd (which skewed ink and carves as much as grey), though there was a little more room to move along the rim as the night went on. Plant opened with “No Quarter”, as he has much of the tour, and of the dozen songs from the main set he covered, a third+ were Zeppelin tunes (more on that in a moment) including, “Thank You” a deeper track from Zep II, “Going to California” and “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You”. Plant was personable and relaxed with the crowd throughout the night.
The band and the sound are striking and deeply Mediterranean and African, prompting Plant to quip later in the evening that they were playing “Country Eastern”. The integration of Juldeh Camarah’s riti between twin guitars and abundant Eastern frame drums in complex time signatures was something to behold. This is music that is big on texture, not on blast. “Rainbow” and “Pocketful of Golden” from “lullaby…” were great examples of the easty-westy thing, even weaving in Celtic touches. “Fixin’ to Die”, the 1940 penned Bukka White blues has been covered by the likes of Dylan (on his debut album 50+ years ago) to G. Love and the Avetts, and Plant with the Shape Shifters torched it with freight train like fury. Plant closed out the pre-encore part of the night with a “Love” medley. As in, “I Just Want to Make…”, “Whole Lotta…” and “Who Do you…” Cheeky, in a way, starting with a slower churning blues that morphed into the headfirst Zep fix everyone craved.
Late in the show, I saw a couple of teenage dudes in their ZOSO tees totally transfixed (if they were older than 32 combined, I’d be surprised). They heard a legendary singer who continues to find new ways of expression drawing from the roots of the delta blues to the global community of today. Judging by the looks on their faces, I’m pretty sure that will be etched in their heads, too. Now that’s a legacy.