By Brian F. Johnson
Robert Plant is making a righteous rock and roll sound once again.
The lead singer of arguably the best band in the history of rock and roll has wrapped up his recent Americana-based Band of Joy project, and before that, put to rest his work with the Grammy Award winning bluegrass and roots explorations he did with Alison Kraus.
In 2012, Plant re-assembled his Strange Sensation project from the early 2000s, added some new players, changed the name to Robert Plant Presents The Sensational Space Shifters, and headed off 180 degrees from the folk music he’d been playing lately, right back into the belly of the beast of blues and rock and roll.
“It’s invigorating,” said Plant in a recent exclusive phone interview with The Marquee. “It’s pretty powerful stuff for me, and it’s laced with irony. This allows me to get big with my voice. It’s a different thing for me, because I’m not sharing the spotlight of the vocals as I have for the last two, quite lengthy, projects. I’m back in the driver seat, entirely.”
The Sensational Space Shifters play what Plant calls “pretty raucous, rambunctious music,” including tracks from 2002’s Dreamland and 2005’s Mighty ReArranger, as well as some bluesy rearrangements of classic Zeppelin tunes. In fact, the opening night of the summer tour in Dallas, in June, Plant and company played 15 songs, seven of which were Zeppelin tunes.
“There was never an end to my sordid love of big riffs and industrial British hard core music,” said Plant. “There was never an ‘Almost Famous’ moment where you had problems with guitarists or a singer or someone going to jump off a roof as the golden god. None of that was going on. So when I went back to Britain [after Band of Joy]I asked if we could get this going again, but this time on a different slant, and that’s what we did. And it’s just been like another far out trip for me, you know?”
When the band played its first shows together last year, positive reviews poured in, but nearly every one had some sort of qualifier that Plant’s voice was strong, but he couldn’t hit the high notes that he could in his youth. Plant accepts that that’s how he’ll always be judged, but the singer still has a bit of ‘fuck off’ attitude to naysayers. “They all say, ‘He can’t hit the notes anymore’ and in the back of my mind last night, as we were performing, I was thinking, ‘Hey, is that one of the notes that I can’t hit there? Is that the fucking criteria? Well, if it is, there it is and if it isn’t then I’m a castrati and lost my wherewithal somewhere outside of Houston,” he quipped.
Going against the grain is part of Plant’s ‘m.o.’ and it’s his way of keeping things fresh. Plant has famously said that his career ended in 1980 at 32 years old, when drummer John Bonham died, signifying the end of Led Zeppelin. So, as he sees it, everything he has done musically since then has been done sheerly for enjoyment and personal education. The singer even remembers with fondness some of his 1980s now semi-embarrassing solo projects. In an interview with the BBC last year, he said, “I really wanted to see what was out there. Shit or bust it was going to be exactly how I wanted it to be. Even the ’80s shit, with the first sampling and computer technology, which sounds awful now; it’s the kind of thing where you want to walk the plank. But in truth, I was trying stuff out that you never go near, and would never go near again because some of it was quite horrendous, but it was at least worth a shot.”
Since that time, Plant has taken “shots” at a vast array of genres, styles and projects, almost as if he’s addicted to jumping off the musical cliff. “I can’t tell you what a lucky guy I am, really,” he said. “I’ve used my voice and enthusiasm to open as many small doors as I can, which really keeps me stimulated. You know, I can’t go join a band as a wing man. I’ve got nothing else to do, apart from a few card tricks. I’m not going to go play guitar for anyone, so I have to be at the sharp end of it all and to do that I have to excite myself. There are other ways to skin a cat, but this is the way I prefer.”
When Plant touches down in Denver this month he’ll be back on sacred ground in the eyes of many Zeppelin fans. For it was here, the day after Christmas in 1968, that Led Zeppelin played its first U.S. show. In his book Backstage Past, the recently departed famed concert promoter Barry Fey wrote that he had a soldout show with Vanilla Fudge and Spirit on the books for December 26, 1968, and that Vanilla Fudge’s booking agent had called him the week before the show asking him to add the then unknown Zeppelin to the bill. Fey refused at first, but when the Vanilla Fudge’s management called back and offered to pay Led Zeppelin $750 of the money Vanilla Fudge was supposed to earn if Fey would match it, the promoter caved and added them to the show. Barry Fey paid $750 out of pocket to Led Zeppelin for their first American gig!
Plant said that he doesn’t really recall his early encounters with Fey. “I was absolutely petrified to be barely 20 and playing in America. I didn’t know Barry from anybody and I was so preoccupied and overwhelmed with the gig,” he said. “But as the years went by and I stretched my wings a bit, I learned what a very colorful character Barry was. He was laced with irony and had that expression that you couldn’t read. He should have been in the movies, really. He had such a wicked sense of humor.”
Not too long ago, when Plant was playing a Denver Fillmore show, Fey showed up to the pre-show and cast that wonderful sense of humor at Plant. “He came up and told me he was putting together a big Red Rocks thing and that he was looking for a really big artist. I said, ‘Well here I am.’ Barry looked at me and he said, ‘No! We want a big artist. You know The Who, right?’ I was like, ‘Fuck off, man!’ Here we were like two old rogues laughing and joking around,” said Plant.
While the current tour is the focus for now, Plant said that he has been writing and that he has even recorded about a dozen new pieces, but he didn’t expand on plans to release an album. What he did say was that when the public does see one, “it’s not going to be done in the traditional way.”
Plant does, after all, like to keep fans, audiences and critics on their toes too, making sure the grass doesn’t grow under anyone’s feet. “It’s always like, ‘What the fuck is he going to do now?’” he said.
And from the looks of it, what Plant’s going to do is to continue to make changes to his music and his legacy. “You don’t arrest the world with great music only to repeat it for the next fifty years, pro rata,” he said. “You’re stuck, but you can still visit the songs and kick the hell out of them.”
:: Robert Plant Presents The Sensational Space Shifters ::
:: Red Rocks Ampitheatre :: July 10 ::
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