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Man with a whole lotta talent (RP Interview)


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Man with a whole lotta talent

Robert Plant is back to his bluesy roots as his latest project gears up to close the Womad festival. It seems he's happy to put his rock god days behind him

I'm due to meet him in a Russian tea room in Primrose Hill, but find the man instead in the local wine shop, pondering the chiller cabinet. Across the road, there's a café crowded with a half dozen pavement-cramming prams. He makes a joke about fertility cults – you could say he was the centre of one, once – and chooses another café, on the sunny side of the street.

With his straggly hair pulled back, a goatee and a family of well-lived in wrinkles marking out several lifetimes, there's nothing plastic about Robert Plant; he has lived fully through several reincarnations, from midlands Beatnik to new Yardbirds singer, priapic 1970s rock god, 1980s survivor, 1990s reviver, and in the last decade, evoking rootsy Americana with 2007's hugely successful Raising Sand with Alison Krauss and the recent Band of Joy project with Buddy Miller and co-vocalist Patty Griffin, to whom he is rumoured to have married. "I eloped and ran off to Texas," is all he'll say, "So now I spend half my time there and half here." There, he lives in what he describes as 'an old crack house in Austin', a rented place infested with termites. "I tap my hand on the table and they fly out the walls in this huge cloud, like something from a Disney film."


Band of Joy was Plant's first band in the 1960s, and it's joy, rather than legacy that his next project is all about, for with The Sensational Space Shifters, Plant, with Griffin and a fresh band of brothers, including JuJu's Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara, and ex-members of Portishead, Cast and Massive Attack, will close Womad's 30th year, with Khaled, Jimmy Cliff and Femi Kuti among the line-up.

"I've been lucky to meet some really stimulating people, and Justin is the key to so many doors," enthuses Plant. "But sadly, in the life I led" – within Led Zeppelin, he means – "it was a closed circle, and I suppose it was because everyone was much younger and there was a competitive aspect. And I'd missed that; the revelry has only come in the last 10 years".

The Led Zeppelin reunion is only five years gone, but are those days of being a rock god further away for him than for the band's listeners? "Absolutely!" he cries. "When you're a big fish in a small pond, way back when, we were better than anyone around us, then suddenly we're playing with doyens of the time. There was such charisma and mood at the festivals in America. You had to really dig in. It was quite an experience – and there was Janis Joplin to give you a tincture for your throat afterwards. It was pretty overwhelming and very exciting, but yes, it was a long way from here."

These days, Plant plays his game with a different stack of cards. "You can grow or you can get so far that you seize up and say, 'this is it, this is my fate, I'm staying with it'. Stick or twist like blackjack." Which must have been the cards he was dealt around the Led Zep reunion at the O2. So what if 20 million fans applied for tickets – Plant wouldn't stick, and there was to be no Zeppelin tour.

Plant's winning hand – this sense of finding a new music that refreshes those parts the back catalogue can't reach – has its roots in his elopement to Texas. "I made Raising Sand just before the Zeppelin O2 gig and this new dawn, if you like, gave me a whole new view of music and musicians and application and joy – because it didn't have any of the Sixties-Seventies hangover in it. The last vestige of pin-up had gone. I was working with people who were steeped in their stuff, Appalachian, whatever it may be. They'd made that choice as to where they wanted to go. It was a new dawn, entirely, for me. It trickled through and Buddy Miller and I created Band of Joy, which was tougher than Raising Sand. And we've recorded a new record that's far, far out with psychedelic pedal steel and all sorts of stuff."

And with the Space Shifters, Plant is pushing the boat out even further. "It has eight people in it now, it's like a review," he grins. "It's so joyous and the great thing is that it's not a precious metal at all. People come together to do what they want to do, and what they can. The sound Justin and Juldeh make melds into one beautiful thing. The space-shifting is a natural movement. It's wild, and to stand back in the middle of it, especially with Patty singing alongside me, she looks at me and raises her eyebrows as if to say, 'this doesn't happen in Texas'."

To limber up for Womad, the Space Shifters are testing their abilities at the HMV Forum tomorrow. "And what is it really, but people who can do what they do, allowing other people to join in? The exchange is there." That little chuckle again. "I can't believe my luck. It could have been so different." Quieter, more to himself: "Fuckin' murder."

That's not to say he's wiped the past from his repertoire. Far from it; it's just that he'll turn it inside out. "We could switch to bendirs and go off into some Arabic folk song in the middle of 'Whole Lotta Love'," he says. "I take chances and I risk, but I don't study. I'm trying it on. With this spacey, trippy shit, I get in the middle of it and go."

Letting go has been his working method since the beginning, along with a passion for the roots of rock '*' roll in the Blues, and beyond, in African music. "In 1972," he remembers, "I took Jimmy Page to this part of Morocco called the sub-Sahara, between the Atlas Mountains, and when you go into the market and start buying cassettes, you're listening to the lone voice, the one bandir and the violin. The Berbers and hill tribes –what was left of the tribes of the Lords of the Atlas – were making this music that was eternal. Jimmy and I took a tape machine, recording people on our way. While at the same time still being Led Zeppelin."

Some 40 years on from those field trips, Plant will revisit the music of the Atlas – as well as the roots music of Gambia, Mississippi, and Appalachia, when he hits the stage and lets it all go at Womad. With that voice peeling into the night air around the festival grounds and the band pushing, grinding and shapeshifting around him, you may be forgiven for imagining yourself back on some free festival field of the early Seventies, at the apogee of the Zeppelin live experience.

"It was a bit overcooked at times," he admits, "and a bit self indulgent but it was part of the times and actually, back in the Sixties and Seventies, people played great, and why not extend it, why not enjoy it? It's what the quality and the psyche of the audience in those days demanded. It did go on and on but no one was looking at their shoes while they were playing. It was like, 'this is fucking great; excuse me, I'm gonna be a while'."

With the second Band of Joy album due for release next year, it's down to the Space Shifters to keep Plant testing his boundaries as a solo artist. "So long as it feels good, that's what matters, really. I'm not trying to break the bank and I'm certainly not trying to play Wembley Stadium," he laughs, adding quietly, almost matter-of-fact, "though I do know how to do that." He laughs again, and shoots an impish, well-weathered look, as if considering, once again, the roots of it all. "I was the guy who replaced Keith Relf in the Yardbirds," he says, almost in wonder, "with a voice that fitted with the time." That grin again. "Now I'm all ears."

The Sensational Space Shifters play the HMV Forum, London, tomorrow. The 30th Womad from 27-29 July at Charlton Park, Malmsbury, Wiltshire, with tickets £25-£135, and headliners including Robert Plant and Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club.

-Tim Cumming


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Thanks. Cool to know there's going to be a new Band of Joy album this year. Hopefully it'll include some of those original songs Plant talked about writing with Buddy Miller in an interview he did sometime last year.

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He's also mentioned writing some trippy songs with Patty so maybe this new album will have lots of originals on it. I really like the group so I'm excited to hear they're going to continue on.

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Looking forward to hopefully reading about your experiences tomorrow night, truth and beauty, takamba, ledded1, and others, who are attending the concert!

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Looking forward to hopefully reading about your experiences tomorrow night, truth and beauty, takamba, ledded1, and others, who are attending the concert!

He's amazing: still the most incredible singer, fabulous stage presence and so much at home with that group of musicians.

I most enjoyed the opening part of the set which began with a Bukka White song and included other old blues : but with quite a loud, rocking sound which I haven't heard him do in recent years, and singing to match it : SO exciting. In recent years he's showed off his capacity to sing with great delicacy, and he's justly proud of that - but to be able to rock powerful bluesy music in the way he did just feels like that's what it's really all about.

It felt like an intentionally strong and loud opening and was very heartening... including a pretty faithful version of Friends which was just a joy to experience. Elsewhere there was quite a lot of specific focus on Patty Griffin, who's very talented, but there's a change in temperature when the spotlight shifts from Robert. I'm not sure the show ever regained the loud drive of the opening though it offered a rich mix of the more recent Robert elements.. the African musicianship and instruments were great : really well integrated with the rest of the sound.... and the overall feel very joyful .

In terms of Zeppelin material, he played Friends, Bron-yr-Aur Stomp and Gallows Pole .. all of which were loosely faithful to the Zep versions... and absolutely terrific .

He also played songs which employed the lyrics of Black Dog, and of Whole Lotta Love - but with quite a lot of the defining elements missing , and the music finding new tangents to go off on. "WLL" in particular (and if you can actually call it that) felt like a deliberate attempt to go somewhere very different with the music, and if you judge it simply on that basis then it works : very interesting, powerful and atmospheric.

On the face of it, the musical aspects of the song are being changed so radically out of an experimental impulse and a wish to create something fresh out of something old ... I do see that.

But personally I can't shut out the impression that it's motivated by a kind of petulant rebellion ... it feels like such a Statement when he does that.

There was one, very oblique, reference to JP after one (terrific) song : it originally "came out on Immediate Records, produced by an old pal of mine " . Sorry, but I didn't know the original and can't remember the title ! So I can't tell you whether that song too had been pointedly shifted away from what the old pal might have done with it.

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Thanks so much for posting at this late hour, truth and beauty!

You've presented in your words, a great mental picture mystery... and I am so looking forward.

Thanks again!

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I too was at the show and loved it.

I do agree though that the opening was the strongest part of the set which saw Robert return to full rock god mode. I thought Patty's short set during the show created something of a lull. I am a huge fan of her solo work yet as the rest of the show was a heavy rock/blues kind of affair for the most part it felt quite jarring. For me the highlights were hearing the Strange Sensation songs again (for my money Mighty Rearranger is the best solo album he's done and Strange Sensation are definitely his best post-Zeppelin band which was proved last night). The version of Spoonful was orgasmic, far better than the Cream version in my opinion. The odd thing is that for me, none of the Zeppelin songs that were played were the highlights although I do really love that version of Black Dog, having seen the Rockwell footage beforehand I hoped it would be played.

I found the choice of encores (Another Tribe and Gallow's Pole) slightly odd considering that on previous tours he's always gone for the big guns - Whole Lotta Love with Strange Sensation and Rock and Roll with the Band of Joy, especially as the show started so heavily. However, both songs were brilliant.

So all in all a brilliant night, great to see him playing some heavy rock again which after all is the reason I got into him and Zeppelin in the first place. The musicianship was top notch which isn't surprising given as how the majority of the band (everyone bar the drummer, Patty and Juldeh I believe) were in Strange Sensation. Lots of improvisation which is always a plus for me. Juldeh was brilliant. Back when JuJu supported Band of Joy in 2010 I hoped Robert would collaborate with them. I hope that one day they release an album together as JuJu albums have been top notch and whilst I love the Band of Joy it sort of feels a shame that after last night he's going back to that band rather than creating something new with the Space Shifters.

Now to see JPJ in London tonight or not...

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