Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters at Live at the Marquee, Cork, 25 June 2014
If Led Zeppelin at their best were never the most original of bands – in that they drew a little too heavily from their blues influences, enough so to blur the line between lines between inspiration and flat out stealing – then what does that make Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters?
A cover of a cover?
It’s something of a paradox, but there is a certain purity to the way Plant and his latest band interpret a selection of Zeppelin’s back catalogue. By alternating between stripped back Americana roots music and psychedelic eastern rhythms, there is something genuinely fresh about the sound – not original exactly, but exciting nonetheless.
If a support act can be judged as a statement of the headliners intent, there were scarcely a better choice for Plant that the joyfully animated and eccentric North Mississippi Allstars. The blues/southern rock band employed an impromptu jam band vibe, the three piece trading off instruments from song to song (and occasionally mid-song) and employing the likes of an electric washboard (with its own wah-pedal) and a cigar-box guitar for a full boogie.
Any question as to whether the Sensational Space Shifters were just another of Plant’s many side projects – akin to his collaboration with Alison Kraus or the Band of Joy – gets dispelled before he even appears on stage. Adorning the backing banner is the image of a fresh faced golden god of rock surrounded by a psychedelic sixties flourish of colour. The Sensational Space Shifters represent a more deliberate step back towards Zeppelin since the last time Plant suggested he might not be totally opposed to an actual reunion after all.
Sure enough the opening number is the instantly familiar Babe I’m Gonna Leave You. The impressively hirsute guitarist Skin Tyson leading the way solo on acoustic guitar, before the whole the whole band crashes a verse or two later, with Plant roaring “Baaaaaabe” like he’s already on the encore and has nothing left to hold back for.
Zeppelin numbers keep flowing, but never just as expected. Black Dog sees Plant joined by Gambian musician Juldeh Camara on ritti – a single stringed fiddle from west Africa – who leads the song into uncharted territory. The Sensational Space Shifers keep up the jam band vibe set up by their support. Far from going through the motions, Plant dances around the stage like he’s having the time of his life, chanting along to Camara’s singing in his native language like a man possessed.
At times it’s bombastic, at others its delicate. A stripped back (and sublime) version of Going to California on mandolin and acoustic guitar sees Plant showcase his emotional finesse, while on Rock and Roll he gets to launch full force into his trademark soaring yells. Time has been even kinder to his vocal chords than it has been to those blonde locks. There are plenty of frontman half his age (or much less) who can’t conjure up this level of animation.
He strikes a delicate balance between the Bob Dylan school of unrecognisable reworked versions of classics, and basically every other legacy act of the ‘60s and ‘70s who are content to play the familiar songs as the audience want to hear them – hitting that sweet spot between familiar and surprising.
Even the smattering of new tracks – from a forthcoming album to be released in September – only push this experimentation even further. Little Maggie starts off on a straightforward bluegrass banjo riff before diving into a trance-infused rock-out, complete with the keyboardist using a moog to blend blues and electronic in a swell of synths.
Whole Lotta Love may have been inevitable, but Plant tries to sneak it in by launching into the first verse out of free form jam, without waiting for his band to hit that famous riff.
His encore is even more unexpected. It starts with Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down, an interpretation of an old gospel song and concludes on What is and What Should Never Be, a Zeppelin song that’s from their most recognisable. The show loses momentum somewhat, but the finale is basically a free-for all anyway, with the actual song structures nothing more than a start point for the noise making, so it scarcely matters.
In a way, all of the night’s music is just a variation on a trick that Plant and Jimmy Page had figured out back in the late ‘60s: if you’re going to imitate, at least inject enough spirit into it that it looks like your own. All these years later Plant is still injecting so much spirit into his music it’s hard not be swept away by the mystique of it all.