Robert Plant at Colston Hall

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November 17, 2017 at Colston Hall

It’s a shame that so many people are fixated on Led Zep reforming, whether it’s fans up the pub or on the wide world of the web decrying the inactivity, or promoters and businessmen anxious to throw silly money at Jones, Page and Plant in order to make stupid money from an enormo-tour. What is more worthy of debate are two related questions… Firstly, if conventional wisdom is correct in its assumption that Page was the musical powerhouse behind Zep’s catalogue, how come it’s Plant that’s spent his post-Zep career recording and touring an admirably challenging catalogue of genre busting material with numerous combinations of artists? And secondly, why has Page spent so much time not recording and touring an admirably challenging catalogue of genre busting material with numerous combinations of artists? 

Plant’s been at it again, recently releasing Carry Fire, his eleventh solo(ish) LP, his second with the Sensational Space Shifters, and the accompanying tour reached the Colston Hall on a dreary Friday night. The gig had sold out in a flash and Plant treated it as a pseudo-home town gig as several of the band members are either local (guitarist Justin Adams, Billy Fuller on bass, and keys / synth man John Baggott all live here, while drummer Dave Smith has recently moved to our fair city), or at least semi-local (other guitarist Skin Tyson resides over the Bridge). And guest Space Shifter Seth Lakeman isn’t far away in that Dartmoor. This also gave him a chance to do his yokel accent, although he didn’t sound so much local as more like Wurzel Gummidge impersonating a fey pirate…

Robert Plant live at Colston Hall © Mike Evans

But then comedy accents and self-deprecating banter are all part of Plant’s current on-stage persona – far from a Golden God, he’s affable, down to earth and warm with the audience, responding to the crowd (even when it’s proclamations of love from excitable ladies) and no longer ignoring current events, some of his latest tunes overtly political by his standards. He’s a generous band leader on stage too, stripped of the arrogance of youth he frequently stepped back from centre stage to allow the spotlight to shine on his guitarists and Lakeman – who made frequent visits to the stage.

Robert Plant live at Colston Hall © Mike Evans

The set comprised fifteen tunes – solo material, covers and, of course, Zep tunes – and the band stirred up a powerful racket, conventional rock sounds leavened by less conventional instrumentation to the betterment of the songs. The set opened with New World…, a powerful statement of intent and an unambiguous commentary on the immigrant “crisis” followed by Turn it Up, less overt but its lyrics in turn dovetailing tellingly with the opener. The sound was excellent from the off and Adams delivered the first of numerous thrilling solos, a reverb drenched homage to the early six string rockers that complimented the lyrics exquisitely.

Robert Plant live at Colston Hall © Mike Evans

The May Queen (recorded by “younger people in a different time”) saw Lakeman’s first guest spot, his jaunty violin livening up a knowing nod to Plant’s younger days – the “message remains the same” indeed. And naturally material from those younger days featured… Lakeman converting Gallows Pole in to something of a hoedown and Misty Mountain Hop closing the set, Plant suggesting that it wasn’t quite such a “trite hippy anthem” and the muscular version indeed forced a revaluation of the tune, and how the world has changed since its inception. That’s the Way was a bit of a tour de force and illustrates both the maturity of Plant as a performer and his acknowledgement of the passing of time. Unlike many of his contemporaries Plant doesn’t attempt sing older cuts like a twenty year old, but rather adapts the material to suit his voice, something he’s consistently done to both his credit and the betterment of the tunes. His need to rethink the songs also resulting in innovative and rewarding interpretations of much loved material.

Robert Plant live at Colston Hall © Mike Evans

The first of a trio of covers perfectly illustrated this with Babe I’m Gonna Leave You superbly reimagined, still powerful but with Plant investing new meaning in the words though his more restrained yet fuller rendition – the band delivering the heft. Little Maggie was a delightfully delivered with a shuffle beat and cheery violin and Fixin’ to Die never fails to impress, tonight’s version moody, menacing and full of spook – Plant again singing within his range. Not all of the reinterpretations were unmitigated triumphs – the Page & Plant number Please Read the Letter had been given a course of steroids and beefed up but it flattered to deceive. Initially the bulk of the tune impressed but on reflection the lyrical content is better served by the more skeletal version on Raising Sand.

Robert Plant live at Colston Hall © Mike Evans

Plant has always surrounded himself with damn fine musicians, and the Space Shifters are no exception, arguably his best line-up to date. But hold on the Strange Sensation routinely tore up the stage… and the first touring band, with Robbie Blunt – wow, they burned up venues for fun. Let’s just stick with Plant has always surrounded himself with damn fine musicians. Tyson and Adams meshed beautifully throughout the night, giving each other space, complimenting each other and yet playfully competing. Fuller and Smith were locked in to the pocket, nimble – even funky at times – but powerful and forceful when required. Band cheerleader Baggott decorated the material with organ and synth washes and all but Smith contributed sympathetic backing vocals throughout. Lakeman’s contributions were just the right side of ubiquity, at times they shone (The May Queen and Gallows Pole) but there was the threat of fiddle for the sake of it, a misstep adroitly avoided. Just.

Robert Plant live at Colston Hall © Mike Evans

Encore never in doubt, the band opened with Bones of Saints, a splendid mix of chiming and riffing guitars, its urgent pace matching yet more lyrics commenting on the clusterfuck that is the present state of the world. Of course the crowd went ballistic after the smoke and mirrors of a noodling intro lead in to Whole Lotta Love the evergreen favourite given the Shape Shifter treatment, retaining its rocking core but suitably embellished and retooled.

Robert Plant delivered a strong, powerful and relevant set, something he’s being doing consistently for a bloody long time. But here’s a final thought that may upset some diehard fans… Wouldn’t it be great if he did a tour that featured no covers and no Zep material and just his own tunes? After all he’s got a large catalogue of material to draw from, much of it would lend itself to reinterpretation and much of it could be played straight. And yet he seems to have written off a major part of his career. It’s admirable that he continually produces new songs, marvellous that he hasn’t turned his live shows into a jukebox and that he plays his new material but a puzzle that he neglects his own back catalogue in favour of songs from a band that he refuses to re-join and (admittedly excellent) covers. That aside let’s remain grateful that he is still, at 69 years of age, recording and touring an admirably challenging catalogue of genre busting material with grace, humour and panache. And ridiculous impersonations of yokels.

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