How Many More Years: Robert Plant and The Uninterrupted Shape of Songs

Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters -
Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters – “Lullaby… And the Ceaseless Roar”

Take me to the western shore
Where the light moves bright upon the tide
To the lullaby and the ceaseless roar
Where the songs never die

– Robert Plant, “A Stolen Kiss”, Lullaby…And the Ceaseless Roar (2014)


DISCLAIMER: The audience was not allowed to film or photograph the show – all live photos are therefore of their show at Les Eurockéennes music festival, Belfort, France (2014)

There he is, clicking his fingers to the beat of “How Many More Times”; there he is, in the golden tone of his voice that carries every moment, every song. There he is, conversing with the blues that stirred him as a young boy. There he is, unaware of the generosity and span of his gift, humbly thinking he has taken more than what he has given. There he is, moving about to the blues beat, seeming light, seeming swift, unburdened by his own aura that cannot be contained in just his voice or to the space on stage. There he is.

Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters spill onto stage with an unexpected, high-energy version of “Trampled Underfoot” – one of Zeppelin’s latter, and perhaps lesser explored pieces. It is heavy, unlikely, wonderful. It sets the tone rather well, as the Sensational Space Shifters go into their psychedelic West-African drone number, “Turn it Up”, off of their latest album, Lullaby…And the Ceaseless Roar (2014) – Plant’s first full LP featuring original songs (and not renditions of traditional songs) in ten years. With the song, the band delve into their unique energy – the song in itself is like the Space Shifters’ mission statement. It is followed by a slower-paced “Black Dog”, during which Robert Plant’s vocals soar. The song turns into a rhythmic jam session with Juldeh Camarah on the ritti (a West-African fiddle). Camarah is of one the new members who had been added to The Sensational Space Shifters – formerly known as the Strange Sensation, operating between 2001 and 2007 alongside Justin Adams (former producer for Tinariwen), Liam ‘Skin’ Tyson, Billy Fuller, John Baggot and Dave Smith.

They surprise with “Another Tribe”, a song off of The Strange Sensation’s Mighty ReArranger album. It was during these years that Plant and the band went to Mali’s Festival au Désert, and that he subsequently performed with Tinariwen. There are also tales of campfire jams with the late great Ali Farka Touré…

The band then continue into “Poor Howard”, from Lullaby…And the Ceaseless Roar. This song has an interesting story – there is a Leadbelly recording of this song, “Po’ Howard”, but Plant also recalls singing this song as a kid growing up in England. It might have travelled to America through British settlers. The album version of this song perfectly encapsulates Robert Plant’s musical journey: the song has a seemingly country-feel to it, due to the banjo, and the ritti’s fiddle sound. This turns the song into a very rich conversation between country-blues and West-African blues, yet it also reflects on Plant’s exploration of Celtic sounds, and its place in Americana music. At the concert, the song is handled differently, as is expected of The Space Shifters, and “Poor Howard” becomes a Bo Diddley-like jam, except Justin Adams is plucking away at the gimbri (Moroccan string instrument). Plant urges the crowd to listen – “Ecoute!” he exclaims,  before introducing Juldeh Camarah. Everything is an exchange and a celebration of music. The melody of the song has been transformed completely – it feels like a moment that cannot be relived; it is truly sensational stuff. No really, it is fucking cool.

Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters at Les Eurockéennes (Belfort, 2014) - Photo by Jannike Bergh
Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters at Les Eurockéennes (Belfort, 2014) – Photo by Jannike Bergh

Robert Plant then chats to the crowd, about Lord knows where he would have been if it weren’t for blues music from the Mississippi Delta-via-West-Africa “that made its way to the rhythmn & blues clubs in the United Kingdom in the late fifties and early sixties.” Lord knows he almost became an accountant, but then “a lot of songs were taken into the heart of British music,” he explains – and it went to the heart of this young singer and it would never let go, but it would always move around, evolve…  He apologetically adds that they, Led Zep, Cream & co, may have “fucked it up.” The band then goes into their rendition of “Spoonful”, which Plant says he first heard when he was “minus 40 years old.” It starts out like a sinister trance; Robert Plant’s voice transcends the eerie tones, even when he whispers. And when he howls, it is perfectly conducive to a trance; it is ancestral, runs deep; rings up Howlin’ Wolf…

The tone changes when the band play “Rain Song”, which is the only Led Zeppelin song played like the original version. It does feel strange to hear these songs this way, without Jimmy Page or John Paul Jones, perhaps only because it seems so easy to detach the songs from Led Zeppelin when Plant is cloaking them in his own explorations. But the moment is bigger than the slight predicament, and the epic build of this song, with everything so accurately in place, moves me to tears.

Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters at Les Eurockéennes (Belfort, 2014) – Photo by Jannike Bergh

Now, after seeing Robert Plant for the third time – first, with the Band of Joy, and the second and third time with The Sensational Space Shifters – it has become clear that he loves playing medleys. I, for one, love it when he plays medleys.

There is a 20-minute long live version of “Whole Lotta Love” on the How the West Was Won live album (1973), where it goes into an extended psychedelic jam, followed by a few rock ‘n roll numbers like “Let That Boy Boogie”, “Let’s Have a Party” and “Hello Mary Lou”. Many songs throughout his set, as with the previous shows I attended, are medleys. They serve to connect songs, and moments in history.

At this concert, Plant refers back to “How Many More Times” from Led Zeppelin I (1969), a reinterpration of Howlin’ Wolf’s “How Many More Years”; it transitions effortlessly into “Dazed and Confused”, also from that first album. Robert Plant must be having a ball working these things out, because they’re damn fun to listen to. The most surprising moment was when he played “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down” that went into “In My Time Dying” – two gospel blues songs; the former reinterpreted by Plant with The Band of Joy, and the latter, of course, a traditional gospel classic best known by Blind Willie Johnson’s version and reinterpreted by Led Zeppelin on Physical Graffiti (1975). Plant seems to be in conference with both the roots of his musical endeavours as much as what his experiments led to, and what it is all still becoming. There is so much going on in these song choices, in terms of where they come from, how they informed his Led Zeppelin days, and most importantly, how they stayed with him; as he is returning to them now, with the deepest sense of humility and gratitude.

Towards the end of the set, we are treated to Plant’s harmonica playing as they cover “Custard Pie”… It is not one of the ‘easier’ Led Zeppelin songs, and therefore unexpected. It is brilliantly done, going back to that funkier latter day Led Zeppelin sound with the added mouth harp and the heaviness that the Space Shifters manage to translate – Justin Adams and Skin Tyson have the ability to never, ever seem like they are uninspired twenty-first century guitarists aping famous seventies riffs – there is always a groove, movement, heaviness, breadth… It would seem there is a thousand songs within a song. It would seem that this is what Robert Plant and The Sensational Space Shifters set out to do – finding a song’s essence, making it shine, like a pearl, when turned, reflecting a thousand different shards of light.

Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters at Les Eurockéennes (Belfort, 2014) – Photo by Jannike Bergh

When the band plays “Whole Lotta Love”, it really is a homage to Muddy Waters, whose song “You Need Love” gave rise to the Led Zeppelin classic. Robert Plant sings lines from “I Just Want to Make Love to You”/”You Need Love” to the “Crawlin’ King Snake” beat; the song explodes into “Whole Lotta Love”, with Robert Plant’s vocals being the most powerful force emanating from that stage. The song travels through to West-Africa with Juldeh Camarah on the ritti; Justin Adams’ guitar-playing has a Touareg groove going on; Plant incites the crowd with his characteristic hand-claps; the rhythm section have completely changed the original beat. How many more ways will they play this song?

Back in 1975, an interviewer asked Robert Plant, “What’s next for Led Zeppelin?” He replied, “Heaven forbid, there’s so much to do […] I don’t see that there should be any time to stop.”

And here he is, still, Robert Plant; forging ahead, creating, taking from and giving back to the place where it all originated, to the ebb and flow of “the lullaby and the ceaseless roar / where the songs never die.”

There is not much more to say, except Thanks, and to hope that he will make it out to South Africa with The Sensational Space Shifters in all their splendour for all my friends to see, before he retires. X


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