Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters
With the Sonics
The Bomb Factory, Dallas
Tuesday, March 15, 2016
Think of Robert Plant and his decade-plus run with Led Zeppelin, and images of pure hedonism are likely to spring to mind. Flowing hair, open shirts exposing bare chests, metal-heavy riffs, fables of questionable encounters with fans (even involving shark parts) run rampant.
Plant today is the antithesis of all those excesses, and at The Bomb Factory on Tuesday night he was every bit the dignified man of the world. He speaks like a high-pitched English gentleman, and despite his long gray hair, he appears well-reformed. Plant also doesn't swear, move incessantly or otherwise act the badass. Until he sang, it was almost hard to reconcile his composed stage presence with the image of an artist who lived life like a William Burroughs drug novel.
He and his band, the Sensational Space Shifters, took the stage after legendary '60s garage rockers the Sonics started the night. The place was packed to an uncomfortable degree, though given the venue's design, the stage could be seen all the way from the exit. Plant started off with "The Lemon Song," a Zeppelin blues-rock number that set the tone for the night.
He's publicly disavowed his contributions to heavy metal in the past, and delivered a genius collage of foreign and familiar sounds throughout the set. What's more, Plant's mom was of Romani origin and he grew up idealizing Welsh and Celtic folklore. With Zeppelin, his fantastical storytelling was unmatched, and on Tuesday he brought forth every bit of folklore that's influenced him.
His vocals were crystalline. Plant's iconic falsetto, screams and stuttered runs still sound as if resonating from 30-year-old vocal chords. Pretty early on in the show, he had the audience sing verses from Zeppelin's "Black Dog," but not in that sad way that suggests that the performer cannot hit the notes himself, like Kanye taking on Queen. Instead, Plant's vocal restraint seems a question of taste, not a lack of range.
Plant may not have Jimmy Page at his side, but his current band contains no weak link. Their sound was brilliant and focused, almost scientifically percussive. Guitarist Skin Tyson resembles Russian mystic Rasputin, and his playing is just as wizardly. Likewise, guitarist Justin Adams was masterly and offered a visually stimulating factor with his dad-like dance moves. The band includes John Baggott of Portishead and Massive Attack on keyboards. But the show was stolen by Juldeh Camara, a West African goje player, who popped on and off the stage to mind-blowing effect.
While Plant may have distanced himself from his younger, wilder days, he did share some sufficiently hazy memories. At one point he told the crowd, "I remember in 1969 some fun going on around here, but can't remember what." He did deliver a great Plantism after receiving flowers, though, saying, "I'll put these in water as soon as I find somewhere to live."
He did elaborate on having been in Deep Ellum when he played the Gypsy Tea Room, reminding the audience of the area's early-century blues masters like Blind Lemon Jefferson. He explained the blues' effect on British music by carrying elements of the South and of African music, which he pulled together to demonstrate the universality of all forms of folk music around the world.
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Often he'd string those elements together to reimagine some of his most well-known songs. "Whole Lotta Love" was kicked off with a medley of two Muddy Waters songs, "Hoochie Coochie Man" and "I Just Want to Make Love to You," while "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" featured a flamenco guitar instrumental. "Daze and Confused" was itself used as an interlude, slowed down to a crawl. The musical directing was flawless and the set never got dull as he teased Zeppelin classics with Plant's solo work, as songs were treated to new arrangements and changed tempos.
After an hour and a half of playing, Plant returned for an encore, reintroducing the band with a beer in hand. "Poor Howard" was a brilliant uptempo song, with sonorous rhythm and majestic harmonies.
They closed with Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll," which Plant embellished with a little fake cry and by signaling the audience to join him with raised "jazz hands."
Except for his now completely covered chest, Plant appears virtually unchanged. But the legend has matured, proving his brilliance as musician and vocalist, and less as a stage meteor. No doubt the idolization of Plant had little to do with his antics, and a lot to do with his musical legacy. Not even the atheists among us could dare question his rock god status.