Robert Plant stopped by Wolf Trap’s Filene Center on Monday night July 22, 2013. There was no album to promote, no Alison Krauss or Patty Griffin to share the vocals, and no superstars of Americana music like Buddy Miller, Darrell Scott or T-Bone Burnett. This tour was just a 64 year-old rock legend shifting musical gears and bringing out his big voice once again.
Plant took a step back with the Sensational Space Shifters – not a step back to his 60s and 70s glory days with Led Zeppelin, even though he performed seven songs from that band. He stepped back to the Strange Sensation days, the band that backed him from 2001 to 2007. Plant was reunited with guitarists Liam “Skin” Tyson and Justin Adams, an also reunited with keyboardist John Baggott who is best known with his work with Portishead and bassist Billy Fuller who has played with Massive Attack. The band added flavor with West African musician Juldeh Camera who playe a variety of ethnic instruments including the ritti, kologo, and talking drum. Dave Smith completed the band on drums.
Robert Plant might have taken a step back but he continues to step forward with his music. He explores musical styles including trip hop and world music and blends them with rock and blues. Plant embraces his musical curiosity, boldly exploring and mixing music like a mad, musical chemist. It is that spirit which made Led Zeppelin so great. Now in his sixth decade of singing the results vary and the songs certainly don’t remain the same.
Bombino was a great choice for an opener. Bombino, who was born in Niger, brought his brand of Nomadic rock and roll. He was given a 40-minute opening set. The crowd gave them a warm reception. The songs were not in English so I can’t provide a set list. The music flowed into jams nicely. The program compared him to Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, and Jerry Garcia – but I found him to fall short of those lofty comparisons. His solos blended in smoothly with the rest of the band which made great music. However, it also made it hard for a guitar solo to stand out. The authentic world vibe did fit nicely into what would come later in the evening.
Robert Plant and his Sensational Space Shifters took the stage as the PA system played Middle Eastern music. Skin Tyson shined on the acoustic guitar as they opened with Led Zeppelin and Joan Baez classic “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,” which kept the audience on their feet. The song was easily one of the better done Zeppelin tunes of the night. It stayed rather true to the classic version with the big differences being Tyson’s intro and solo later in the song, which were simply beautiful. Robert showed the crowd he still had his big voice and he could still sing “Baby, baby, babe” when he wantsed to pull them out.
Next he sang “In the Mood” off his second solo album The Principles of Moments from 1983. Like most songs in his set list, the tune had been reworked a bit, but the melody stayed intact. Robert Plant sang “I can make you dance, I can make you sing, If you want me to” and the crowd certainly was in the mood.
The third song “Tin Pan Valley” came alive with this band. A song from his 2006 album Mighty Rearanger, which featured some of this band, was still reworked. I liked some of the musical additions to the song, but I felt it lost some of the power in the “like this” parts.
Robert Plant and company took Howlin’ Wolf’s “Spoonful” from the blues to some trip hop musical landscape far away from the blues. Only the lyrics remained somewhat true to the original song. Certainly Robert Plant and Led Zeppelin “nicked” blues songs and transformed them into rock and roll mainstays. However, I don’t think anything changed except perhaps “Whole Lotta Love.”
Next came the Led Zeppelin classic “Black Dog,” a song he has been changing for the last several years. He rearranged it to perform with Alison Krauss and again to perform with his recent Band of Joy. You could say he started rearranging this song back in 1990 when he blended it in with his version of Kenny Dino’s “Your Ma Said You Cried In Your Sleep Last Night.” This time around he turned it into something that sounded like it was created in the desert with the help of Juldeh Camera’s instruments and vocals. The famous riff was gone along with the powerful drums. All that remained were the trade mark “Ah, ah, ah, ahs,” which were turned into a singalong with the crowd.
Robert Plant returned to his Mighty Rearranger album for “Another Tribe.” This song sounded close to the album version. The next song – the Led Zeppelin acoustic classic “Going to California” highlighted Skin Tyson on acoustic guitar and Justin Adams on the mandolin.
Plant bounced back to Mighty Rearranger for “The Enchanter.” The band rocked out to his song. Robert pulled heavy from this album for his set list but it made sense considering most of the band had worked on these songs.
Robert Plant let the fans enjoy a double shot of the Led Zeppelin songs “Four Sticks” and “Friends.” Led Zeppelin only played these songs in concert once at two different shows. It was a real treat for Led Zeppelin fans to hear these rarely played songs live – even if they did not stay true to the album arrangements.
Robert Plant squeezed in a rocking version of Bukka White’s classic “Fixin’ to Die.” This is a song Robert Plant had covered in concert before with Led Zeppelin. Plant made this blues song rock and helped the band transition into the next Led Zeppelin song.
Robert Plant ended his set with two more Led Zeppelin songs. The first was “What Should Is and What Should Never Be.” The hero of this song was the soundman who had the studio stereo effects on the guitar parts working to perfection. The sound was terrific for the show except for three of four times when Robert Plant had feedback issues with his microphone. Needless to say the audience was enjoying the Zeppelin numbers.
Plant teased his audience starting “Whole Lotta Love” with an extended “Hoochie Coochie Man” intro. This version of the song blended the original blues origins of this song, the Led Zeppelin psychedelic, hard rock riffs and vocals, and current tweaks provided by modern musicians. In the middle Plant added a bit of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love,” keeping in the tradition of Led Zeppelin adding blue’s medleys in the middle of the song.
Robert Plant came out for a two-song encore. His first encore was “Big Log” – a gem from his 1983 album The Principle of Moments. It was Plant’s first top 40 hit as a solo artist, and a song I hadn’t heard him play live in the 25 years I have been following him. He finished the night with “Rock and Roll.” The song remained true to the Led Zeppelin version, but added a few new wrinkles especially with Juldeh Camera’s instrumentation.
Robert Plant showed he stilled has a “big voice.” He also showed he still had the mike stand wielding moves. The evening was far from what Plant “called an evening of soft rock and REO Speedwagon covers.” Robert Plant is still exploring music, still moving forward, and still having fun. If fans allow Plant to indulge his musical muses, he is willing to sing their favorite songs.
Robert Plant presents Sensational Space Shifters and Special Guest Bombino played one night July 22, 2013 at The Filene Center at Wolf Trap – 1551 Trap Road, in Vienna, VA. For future Wolf Trap events, check their calendar of events.