I will not lie, even an auld, well-seasoned, salty seadog like myself finds himself all giddy and in a skittish tizzy at the prospect of tonight’s performance. It’s not every night that you get a chance to be entertained by one of the Twentieth Century’s defining artists. Weak knees knock and butterflies flutter at the prospect of watching the man whose voice sound-tracked my misspent youth strut his stuff up close and personal.
Percy, the Golden God or just plain old Robert Plant, is one of the few surviving titans from the time when the gods of rock walked amongst us lesser mortals. As the voice of Led Zeppelin, his glorious roar spearheaded their relentless assault, meteoric rise and complete conquest of the globe.
The story of Zeppelin is the stuff of rock and roll legend. The album sales of over 200 million. The whispered tales of bacchanalian excess. The guts, the glory, the pomp and ceremony. As pioneers they didn’t have a rule book to follow so they wrote one and then tore the damned thing up. Wild frontiers men, trail blazers, going where no band had gone before. Achieving riches and success beyond even their wildest dreams. But after the party had ended and when the dust finally settled they left behind a musical legacy beyond compare. A bounty that rests firmly on the blues bedrock they relentlessly mined and plundered like pirates on payday.
Never one to follow convention, Plant, in the intervening years has eschewed the filthy lucre and lazy allure of a Led Zeppelin reunion. Rather than blast out hollow carbon copies of his younger self’s glories he prefers to plough the much richer furrow of a life lived in music. From Memphis to Kashmir to Avalon to Cairo he’s travelled down the lost highways of rock’n’roll, journeying back to the source.
Along the way he has evolved from the Golden God of 70’s rock to the much more gentile and befitting role of curator of the song lines that tie the whole kit and caboodle of this crazy little thing called life together. From raising hell in the Hyatt Hotel to raising sand in Nashville, Plant has continued to develop as an artist but at the centre of it all still beats a hippy heart.
So it should come as no surprise that we are greeted by the heady aroma of burning incense as we enter the Bord Gais Theatre’s auditorium on this Sunday night. Tonight, Plant is back in town with his latest band of brothers, The Sensational Space Shifters, touring in support of his latest long player, Carry Fire.
Two songs in and the inner hippy resurfaces. The band play ‘The May Queen’ from the new release. Fear not people, it’s not a homage to Madame Brexit, rather it’s Plant’s nod to the vernal season. For Zeppelin fans it’s a nice nod to IV with the folky sensibilities of III. And thankfully the last we’ll hear of that certain song from IV for the evening.
Plant will return over the course of the evening to pluck nuggets from his Zeppelin song book. A sublime ‘That’s the Way’ is propelled on by Billy Fuller’s double bass line. ‘Gallows Pole’ bursts into a full on bluegrass hoedown complete with a scintillating ye auld timey fiddle solo from Seth Lakeman. Lakeman, having played tonight’s support slot will revisit the stage throughout the evening to add a blues and folk fire to proceedings.
But what of Percy’s voice? Fully aware of the limitations of his age he no longer lets loose on the highs or histrionics at the end of ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’. But when that crescendo hits and the band lock in the groove, the impact isn’t lessened. The older voice adds a new nuance to the narrative. No longer the young salivating pup, Plant sounds more reflective and wise. A retelling of an old tale in a battled, sager voice.
But as said before, Plant is never content to merely cast the eye back over the shoulder. The beauty of a Robert Plant concert is that the newer material is the measure of the older tracks. Case in point being tonight’s airing of the titular track from the latest album, ‘Carry Fire’.
It opens with a deep hypnotic swirling groove that builds as Justin Adams lays down an Eastern melody that conjures up images of dusty bazaars and towering minarets, Lakeman’s fiddle joins the dance. The two engage in call and response interplay that climaxes with an explosion of a guitar solo from Skin Tyson that threatens to level everything in its wake. The theatre erupts as the song finishes. The roar as loud as any received tonight for the Zeppelin fare, well maybe with the exception of tonight’s swan song but more of that later.
Bukka White’s ‘Funny In My Mind (I Believe I’m Fixing to Die)’ also gets let out for a bop tonight as it’s treated to a full tilt rock’n’roll boogie work out that crescendos with a good old show-boating, rock and roll, centre of the stage solo from Adams. Electrifying.
A hepped up ‘Misty Mountain Hop’ follows before the break and the band return after a half-hearted attempt at “good bye and good night” for another Zeppelin classic, ‘What Is and What Should Never Be’.
And just as we’re getting over that little delight and catching our collective breaths after the night’s last track from Carry Fire, ‘Bluebirds Over the Mountain’, Plant and co. gather round drummer, Dave Smith’s kit as they conspire to conjure up a psychedelic stew that inevitably boils over, lets loose and growls into the opening bars of ‘Whole Lotta Love’.
There’s not a middle aged, saggy bottom left on a seat by the time the opening riff of one of rock’s most iconic moments has finished reverberating around the auditorium. The band move up the gears, Plant cajoles and coaxes, looking for every inch of our love. Jimmy Page’s trippy middle eight, wig-out is replaced by Lakeman laying down some sweet fiddle firey licks before the band kick back into the groove one more time and bring it on home. Sweet baby Jesus – take me now, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Chance would have it that Friday night found this citizen state watching Peter Hook in the Academy literally jumping all over the Joy Division legacy like a pissed up beer boy. So tonight’s performance comes as a welcome relief and reminder that if handled correctly by its custodians, a legacy is something to be enjoyed and cherished and not just a cynical exercise in cash cow nostalgia.
To steal that old sporting adage, form is temporary but class is permanent and they don’t come with much more class than Mr Plant.
Robert Plant photographed by Kieran Frost