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LIVE REPORT: Robert Plant And The Sensational Space Shifters
Julian Marszalek , September 9th, 2014 19:15

Julian Marszalek heads to the Roundhouse in London for an evening of joyful re-imaginings. Photo by Steve Asenjo

To his former surviving band mates, Robert Plant is probably viewed as the ultimate contrarian, yet to anyone who has followed his solo career – especially over the course of his last five albums including latest release, Lullaby And… The Ceaseless Roar – the singer has become one of the most daring and adventurous artists of his generation. Eschewing the big bucks that prevent Led Zeppelin taking flight for one last time, Plant's ongoing musical explorations have seen him seize the possibilities that music, in all its myriad forms, has to offer.

Not that this should come as any big surprise. Almost a decade ago on Mighty Re-Arranger's 'Tin Pan Valley', Plant set out his stall when he lashed out and declared, "My peers may flirt with cabaret/Some fake the rebel yell/Me, I'm moving up to higher ground/I must escape their hell" and it's a statement of intent that he's clung to as he's followed his muse back to the source of his inspiration, before shooting off on tangents that see him embrace vernacular music from across the globe. Given Plant's entrenched constituency from his former alma mater, this is a brave move and perhaps only Paul Weller comes close to challenging his audience with music that deviates from what they think they want.

In many respects Plant is simply following on from the explorations that he embarked on with Jimmy Page over 40 years ago when the pair found themselves experimenting with musicians from Bombay and North Africa. One of the key, yet often overlooked, elements to Led Zeppelin's music was the use of drones and tunings that created a hypnotic and trance-like element to their oeuvre. It's an element that's present in indigenous folk music the world over and here, with the enthusiastic backing of and work with The Sensational Space Shifters, Plant is once again drawn to that music that also embraces loops, effects and unconventional rhythms.

As exemplified the seductive opener of 'Turn It Up', Plant and his band are here to take the audience on a journey away from the delivery of sound that made his name. The rhythms are juddering and relentless as they swoop in and around the Roundhouse's snug confines and stabbing yet briefly effective crunches from Justin Adams' cranked up guitar forcefully interrupts the ongoing drones. Plant himself is in fine voice. Though his dynamic range may not match his glory years, he possesses more than enough self-awareness to move effectively and forcefully to use his voice to colour the sounds around him and judiciously using that characteristic air-raid siren wail of his.

Not that he's completely turned his back on his past. Ably assisted by Skin Tyson, formerly of Britpop's answer to Gerry And The Pacemakers, Cast, 'Going To California' is played straight but his reinterpretations of 'Black Dog' and 'No Quarter' are a wonder to behold. Plant crawls deep inside the songs and re-emerges with new readings of firm favourites as they're re-fashioned to embrace his current direction. West African musician Juldeh Camara use of the kologo, a two-string lute, reduces the songs to their bare bones and in doing so increases the sexual tension of the former track whilst increasing the drama of the latter. One suspects that this is the reason Plant is so resistant to going back to Led Zeppelin; rather than play that familiar material as was, he wants to move it to different times zones and cultures but knows that Page and Jones wouldn't countenance such options any more than a paying audience would.

Yet for all the delving into the back catalogue, it's the new material that lingers after the event. Though Lullaby And… The Ceaseless Roar is rooted into heartache and upheaval, 'Little Maggie' and 'Rainbow' are played with a palpable sense of joy that's utterly infectious. Plant is in a buoyant mood throughout and his references to his band as a "collective" are given credence as the singer frequently moves back to the vicinity of the drums to allow his cohorts to take centre stage.

One can't help but feel that Robert Plant is exactly where he wants to be. Having relocated back to English-Welsh boarders, Plant is back where his heart has always remained but his musical vision stretches out beyond parochial concerns as he seeks out new avenues and routes of musical expression. Such is his yearning and desire for new manifestation and artistic satisfaction, Plant is one of those rare artists of high stature whose next work you second guess at your peril whilst looking forward to what's to come.

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