Our reporter Emma Louise Smart had the joy of seeing Robert Plant play at the Wales Millennium Centre.
Growing up, my mother was obsessed with Led Zepplin. Robert Plant was her first love, and as first loves have a habit of lasting a lifetime (musically, anyway), she still plays their records round the house on hard rotation. This meant that growing up, I was pretty obsessed with Led Zeppelin too, and it was with an entirely childish smugness that I told her I was seeing Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters. She swore at me. Deservedly so.
Wales Millennium Centre is the perfect venue for this kind of gig. The room is beautiful, the acoustics are spot on, and, although the sold out Donald Gordon Theatre seats nearly 1900, it feels surprisingly intimate.
Opening proceedings was British folk sensation, Seth Lakeman, whose modern, poppy take on traditional British myth and folklore has seen him win BBC Folk Singer of the Year, spawned several hit singles, and earned him a spot as fiddle wielder extraordinaire with the Sensational Space Shifters. Upbeat, high energy, and undeniably charismatic, Lakeman set the mood for the night with aplomb. There is a joy to his music that stirs the heart and sets the toes a-tapping. If you aren’t familiar with Lakeman’s work, I heartily recommend you rectify that situation. You can catch him on his solo tour, at Cardiff Tramshed on 18th November.
The crowd, beautifully warmed by Mr Lakeman, eagerly awaited the arrival on stage of Plant et al. I spoke to one couple who had seen Led Zeppelin at Knebworth Festival in 1979, and who had followed Plant’s career through the break up of the band after John Bonham’s tragic death in 1980, via an interesting diversion into synth in the 80s, past some arguably redemptive work with Alison Krauss, and who spoke enthusiastically of the music that he and the Sensational Space Shifters had created.
Although a lifelong fan of Zeppelin, I must confess I had little knowledge of this latest Plant incarnation. Robert Plant, famed for his vocal range, and one of the greatest English singers to have ever lived, is 70 years old, and it was with this question in mind that I took my seat:
Has he still got it?
Yes. He does. In spades.
The 76th date in the Carry Fire tour, this was the performance of a band perfectly in sync, having found their groove yet lost none of the joy of playing. Even though they have been on tour for the best part of a year, they show a level of freshness and enthusiasm that is delightful to behold.
For those unfamiliar with Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters, allow me to take a moment to catch you up.
Plant has long drawn inspiration from world music, notably the blues rock of Tennessee and traditional British folk, and credits Space Shifters guitarist Justin Adams with introducing him to the Moroccan rhythms that are the heart beat of the latest album, Carry Fire.
Expect to hear gutsy guitar, woven with tribal drums, banjo and ragged fiddle. The result of this slightly eclectic mix is rich and vibrant, taking the earthy roots of rock and peppering them with a playfulness that makes you want to move.
Fans of Plant’s early career will have been delighted that around half of the set was Led Zeppelin songs reworked in this style. Opening with a dazzling version of When the Levee Breaks, the set also included Ramble On, The Rain Song, and Gallows Pole. The leather trousers might be a little looser, the shirt no longer open to the navel, but this is unmistakably Robert Plant and his voice has lost none of its fire.
You would be forgiven for thinking that this would be very much ‘The Robert Plant Show’, but the music really is the star here. At any given moment the focus was on the most interesting part of the song musically, whether that be guitar solo, keyboard, fiddle or vocals. Plant often stood to one side in the dark whilst the rest of the band took centre stage.
Plant himself was charming throughout, chatting with the audience, relaxed and surprisingly funny. One particularly fun moment came during The Rain Song when he kicked the mic stand into the air and caught it at the break. Visually, the staging suited the mood, the colourful spectacle was almost as enjoyable as the music. Stand out tracks from the latest album were The May Queen (a tribute to “the end of the cold times, which are upon us once more”) and Carry Fire (a beautiful love song, and my personal favourite).
An hour and a half after they started (he’s 70, remember), they brought the house down by closing with a searing rendition of Black Dog. Tongue in cheek to the finish, Plant engaged in a little call and response with the audience throughout, and the crowd had a fabulous time ‘Aaah-ah-aaaaaaaaah’-ing. Thunderous applause and a well deserved standing ovation met the band as they took their bows. Brilliant from start to finish, Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters are a must watch for me on their next tour. Next time, I’ll take my mum.