Robert Plant & the Sensational Space Shifters @ Riverside Theatre, PCEC
w/ Seth Lakeman
Sunday, April 8, 2018
A privileged Perth audience witnessed a true rock and roll icon live up to his legendary status on Sunday night. The crooning voice out front of Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant was in town with his Sensational Space Shifters in a set that offered a glittering blend of solo, collaborative and original Led Zep tracks from across his seismic 50 year catalogue. It’s fair to say most people were simply there to witness the influential singer and songwriter, probably not knowing much of his work outside Led Zeppelin.
It made it a fascinating dynamic with such a passionate crowd evidently knowing very few of the songs that were played on the night. It was difficult to know exactly what to expect, except maybe for those that caught him at West Coast Blues and Roots in 2013 (or those that have been keeping a close eye on his ever-changing setlists of late). But in the end it was a dynamic that Plant used to his advantage as he kept everyone tantalised, with a set that swung and swerved into different moods and genres and showed the many influences and dimensions of a man that could only be assembled through decades on the top of the rock and roll hierarchy.
The night kicked off with Irish solo act Seth Lakeman. The 2005 Mercury Prize nominee was isolated on a sparse and expansive stage, but once the music started and his voice began to soar, he filled the entire room. Moving between fingerpicked and bowed violin, four-string tenor guitar, stompbox and looping pedals meant the sound went from intimate to expansive, while his storytelling on The Educated Man, Portrait Of My Wife and Kitty Jay touched on the oldest folk traditions. Later returning as part of Plant’s band the Sensational Space Shifters, he plays solo again at Clancy’s Fremantle this Saturday, and is well worth a look.
After a half hour intermission, the house music cut and the room darkened as an ominous loop track drew the buzzing crowd to an eerie hush. As the light show bloomed to life they were treated to the sight of a six-piece band and Robert Plant standing majestically out the front. They launched into New World… from last year’s album Carry Fire. The moment Plant’s unmistakable wavering voice burst through the speakers there a was a noticeable gasp through the room. Just hearing that voice that you connect with a lifetime of listening to music made felt surreal and immersive. The 69-year old paced around the stage and absorbed himself in the music being played around him and in iconic fashion, saw out the track jangling tambourines in both hands.
Plant’s touring band were just as world class as you would expect. Both guitarists shifted between searing electric, to subdued acoustic, and plucking away at other strings like the banjo or the mandolin for those moments that needed a special added element. After 2014’s Turn it Up the group moved onto the recent song adapting an age-old narrative with The May Queen. It was at this point the fiddle became the star of the show with a virtuosic addition from none other than opening act Lakeman. In truth each of the musicians got their moment to shine with moments for the double bass and shimmering keyboard lines keeping the audience attentive throughout. Plant was amicable but not overly talkative between tracks, mostly taking care to mention his admiration for the artists he had worked with on stage that day or in the past, making special mention of the time he met bluegrass star Alison Krauss in Nashville and the Grammy winning 2008 album from which next track Please Read the Letter was lifted.
There were clearly a few over exuberant members of the audience with one being ejected following a scuffle with security and another yelling out to demand Led Zeppelin songs, to which Plant quipped “can someone help that man to the door?” to an amused if not slightly embarrassed crowd. One of the most breathtaking moments of the set was when everything cut out for a few minutes of rich and textural acoustic magic under the spotlight that slowly eased into the opening riff of Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You. Up until that point the group had built such a strong vibe that you might have felt dropping a Led Zeppelin track could have disrupted the flow of it all. But this instance weaved the transition to a more familiar song impressively.
The diversity of different textures throughout was impressive as it appeared Plant’s lifetime in the game was revealing itself in new ways as each song progressed. At times there were resonant 12-string guitars plucking scales that would have fit the part perfectly on a sitar. At other times the group paid homage to Louisiana swamp music complete with banjo and fiddle, while Celtic, mystic, folk, bluegrass and more got a run with just enough epic guitar solos to remind you Plant was still a rock and roller at heart.
An unconvincing “thank you” and departure from the stage actually lasted long enough for the audience to hit fever pitch before the band returned. It seemed like the perfect time to drop a crowd pleaser but the group were determined to do it their own way playing the softer ballad In The Mood. There were solid harmonies shared by the group throughout the set but this was probably where they were put on their finest display.
And then, there it was. The unmistakable opening riff for Whole Lotta Love. While it did send the crowd into raptures the tune did feel a little out of place next to everything that came before it, but thankfully (given he’s no young buck anymore) the iconic interlude in the song was replaced by trad-folk song Santianna only for the riff to kick back into play for the closing moments of the set.
Most in attendance on Sunday night were there because Robert Plant was the legendary singer from Led Zeppelin and the sheer opportunity to see him in the flesh was a rare one. Plant’s own post-Zep songs definitely stood up in their own right. With such an amazing band they could have made anything an incredible experience but it was incredible all the same. While his vocals might not be a strong as they were back in the Led Zeppelin I-IV days, it was damn impressive for a near 70-year old and he barely seemed to fade as the night wore on. The only nagging thing about the night was that you just imagine how other classic songs could have sounded live with such an incredible ensemble (yes I’m looking at you, Kashmir).
Photos by Owen Gregory