I saw Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters on their first tour of Australia in 2013, before Plant had released his first album backed by the group, Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar (2014). That performance at the Sydney Entertainment Centre (sometimes derided as the Empty Space Centre), mostly featured Led Zeppelin tunes, given a twist. It was a great show and it was the gift of a lifetime seeing the great man perform Zep classics such as Black Dog and Rock ’n’ Roll, but last night’s performance was superior.
The “Hammer of the Gods” circa 1976 would’ve been perfect for the Ent. Cent but Robert Plant today belongs in the Opera House. He has released two albums with the Shape Shifters and they’ve had time to really gel as an ensemble.
Led Zeppelin touched on Eastern music (most notably on the epic, but somewhat repetitive, Kashmir), but Plant has really embraced it since his work with Jimmy Page in the ’90s on the No Quarter album. His records with the Sensational Space Shifters dip into the string sounds of Morocco, Egypt and the Middle East. (Some of the songs played live with guitars are tuned and played to reverberate like an oud).
Plant is touring Australia in support of his new album Carry Fire. It was placed number 32 in Rolling Stone’s Top 50 albums of 2017, and it is indeed cracking.
Opening track The May Queen sets the tone and while it gently incorporates some Eastern elements, it is a folk rock workout that wouldn’t sound out of place on Led Zeppelin III. Song two, New World is a standout. A mid tempo rocker, it appropriately introduces a theme of the evils of colonialism that is referenced throughout the album.
The album’s masterpiece is the title track Carry Fire. My word, it is good. Sprawling and ethereal, it has one foot in the Kasbah and one foot in a rock ’n’ roll club. It would fit in just nicely in Page and Plant’s No Quarter set. It was a highlight of last night’s performance. It took us out over the misty mountains …Speaking of misty mountains, the audience went crazy when a version of Going to California from the canonical Led Zeppelin IV, was delivered in impeccable style … Oh boy!
The early part of the show was dominated by new songs but thereafter the set featured covers aplenty. Of the newer songs, Rainbow and the rocking Turn it Up from the Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar album were highlights. His version of the traditional song Little Maggie that appeared on the Lullaby album, also went down a treat.
What Led Zeppelin tunes were played I hear you ask? Aside from Going to California, the Opera House heard What Is and What Should Never Be, Gallows Pole (endowed with a fiddle flourish that doesn’t appear on the recorded version on Led Zeppelin III), Babe I’m Gonna Leave You, Thank You and, of course, Whole Lotta Love.
Those who wanted to hear more hard rock probably enjoyed the blistering version of an old Bukka White song, Fixin’ to Die. It was probably the security contingents’ least favourite track.
Plant is known for his amusing between song banter. Last night, he complained often about the man caught sleeping through his show at the State Theatre three nights previously. He also told us of being woken up by police searching through his bags when Led Zeppelin were in Sydney in 1972. He went on to say that we “still have a fascist government”. Indeed! Rock ’n’ Roll! Robert Plant still has it in spades!
Photos by Prudence Upton
Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters play Bluesfest tomorrow March 30, then Melbourne April 1 and 2, Adelaide April 5 and Perth April 8