Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters at Red Rocks, Denver July 10, 2013
Sometimes a man has to get back to his roots. After several years, a couple albums and a couple tours exploring American folk, roots and country music, Robert Plant has returned to the music that first grabbed him as a teenager in the early ‘60s. The blues provided the underpinnings of Led Zeppelin’s early heavy metal sound and Plant has been revisiting his home base on his current tour by revivifying many of Zeppelin’s original mainstays.
The first four Zeppelin albums were the source of most of the evening’s material. The other major inspiration was Plant’s 2005 album Mighty Rearranger which was his last before his extended dalliance with Alison Krauss and, later, Patty Griffin, whom he married. (Did Krauss turn him down? Did he ask? Enquiring minds want to know! Well, maybe not.)
Mighty Rearranger paid homage to blues and R&B greats like Bobby Bland and Ray Charles. It had a dark and menacing sound throughout. Wednesday night’s show recreated that ambience, and no wonder because Plant reassembled nearly the whole Mighty Rearranger band for the current tour. The only changes were David Smith on drums and, notably, the addition of Juldeh Camara from West Africa.
Camara only played on about a third of the songs, but his contribution was unique and immense. He played a couple different African instruments, one resembling a violin and the other similar to a banjo. His playing Africanized the proceedings. However, unlike the results with bees, this Africanization proved to be much more pleasant and satisfying.
A particular highlight was Plant’s cover of “Spoonful,” a tune usually credited to Willie Dixon from around 1960, but with versions going back to the 1920s by Charley Patton, Papa Charlie Jackson and Luke Jordon. Howlin’ Wolf recorded one of the more well know versions. Plant’s interpretation incorporated the brooding and mysterious sound of Mighty Rearranger and some of the darker Zeppelin sound. This rendition sounded like it could have been arranged by a band of Ring Wraiths. Camara entered the creep-show about half way through with his violin-like instrument and transported the proceedings from Mordor to West Africa. Although his playing changed the flavor, the mood remained the same.
“Black Dog,” a blues rave up from Zeppelin’s Fourth Album, was another that benefited from Camara’s African sensibilities. This version, less bombastic than its original incarnation, nevertheless oozed the blues and continued to express concern over the eternal salvation of big legged women. Camara made an appearance on this tune, this time with an Africanized banjo and again shifted the dimensions of the familiar song to something heretofore unknown and unheard.
Although Plant and company rearranged most of the familiar subject matter, the band played straight-up versions of several songs including the opener “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” from Zeppelin’s debut album which set the stage for the blues-based festivities to come. “Going to California” also received a treatment fairly close to the original version and provided a brief respite from the dark and the blue.
The Sensational Space Shifters closed their main set with an epic version of “Whole Lotta Love.” The classic guitar lick was intact and by the time the band got around to it, the tune sounded a lot like it does on Led Zeppelin II. However, it took a few minutes to get there. Zeppelin was criticized (and rightly so) for ripping off blues tunes and failing to give attribution to the songs’ authors. “Whole Lotta Love” is one of those. The tune is but a minor variation of Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love.’” Certainly, the heavy, distinctive guitar lick played a big role in the song’s popularity, but justice, fair play and good sportsmanship all demanded that Dixon’s name should have been added to those of the four Zeppelin band members who were credited as the composers on the early editions of the album. (Later CD versions have added Dixon as a composer).
In any event, Wednesday night’s version at Red Rocks began with a long introduction that featured Plant singing the original lyrics somewhat in the style of 1950s and ‘60s Chess Records, from whence the song sprang. Interestingly, the vast majority of the audience didn’t catch on until the electric guitar started to do its thing.
As veterans of the 1970s well know, the Led Zeppelin II version of the song has a spacy interlude with Plant yelps and other noises shifting back and forth from speaker to speaker. (Scene from a dorm room at CSU circa 1975: several freshman are gathered there listening to this song on a pretty good stereo with, shall we say, a little volume, and stuff. About a minute into the spacy interlude, one of the attendees blurts out, “Oh wow, they must have made this for people who are stoned!!!” (DUH!) Never has so much incredulity occupied such a small space.) The interlude in the 2013 version, instead of offering space shifting sounds, featured Camara for an African interlude. While the dorm denizens of the mid-70s may not have thought this idea was necessarily a good one, it sounded pretty good to 21st Century ears.
Plant chatted with the crowd, commenting on the majestic rocks and the altitude. He also explained his early love for the blues and how he got a chance to see many legendary bluesmen in the early ‘60s when they came to England and were welcomed as heroes at a time when they remained in obscurity in their home country. One of those bluesmen was Bukka White and Plant covered one of his songs, “Fixin’ to Die.” The other blues cover (in addition to “Spoonful”) was a brief taste of “Who Do You Love” tossed in the middle of the aforementioned “Whole Lotta Love.” Besides the blues covers, the early Zeppelin and the Mighty Rearranger tunes, Plant played two others; “I’m in the Mood for a Melody” from his second album, 1983’s The Principle of Moments and “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down” from Band of Joy which is actually his most recent album.
The voice: Plant sounded good. He no longer goes into the stratosphere, but he can still reach higher than Colorado’s 14ers. Wednesday night, he displayed power, the ability to set a mood and much of the drama he’s been known for over the past four decades. Also, according to recent interviews, he has been relishing the freedom to sing unchained from the need to harmonize with another singer. Getting back to your roots can be a liberating experience.
Babe I’m Gonna Leave You (I)
I’m in the Mood for a Melody (The Principle of Moments)
Tin Pan Valley (Mighty Rearranger)
Spoonful (Willie Dixon and others)
Black Dog (IV)
Another Tribe (Mighty Rearranger)
Goin to California (IV)
The Enchanter (Mighty Rearranger)
Free. Percussive jam
Four Sticks (IV)
Fixin to Die (Bukka White)
What Is and What Shall Never Be (II)
Bluesy intro You Need Love (Willie Dixon) >>
Whole Lotta Love (II) >>
African interlude >>
Who Do You Love tease >>
Whole Lotta Love
Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down (Band of Joy)
Rock and Roll (IV)
Robert Plant, vocals
John Baggott, keyboards
Justin Adams, guitars
Skin Tyson, guitars
Billy Fuller, bass
David Smith, drums
Juldeh Camara, African instruments
Muddy Waters, “You Need Love:”