By Brian Wise.
“It just goes to show what an amazing time it must have been for everybody who was there, and apparently I was there.” Robert Plant
There is no doubt that Robert Plant is a rock superstar. As you read this, somewhere in the world one of the hits that he recorded with Led Zeppelin is playing on the radio. Most likely it is ‘Stairway To Heaven’ but it could be anyone of a dozen iconic songs.
While he fronted one of the most successful bands of all time, selling over 200 million albums, Plant’s eyes are firmly on the present and the future. Since the group’s reunion in 2007, Plant has constantly rejected rumours of another get together.
Nothing could be a greater comparison than Plant’s forthcoming concerts and Paul McCartney’s epic shows here late last year. While McCartney explored his back catalogue in stunningly accurate depth, Plant is likely to deal with his old songs in a far more adventurous way.
McCartney offered faithful versions of many of his hits with The Beatles and Wings, while Plant is likely to provide stunningly creative interpretations of some Led Zeppelin classics. In one case you have the consummate pop songwriter working within that medium, while on the other hand you had the godlike rock singer whose vocal gymnastics ranged across some marathon songs set against one of the world’s greatest lead guitarists in Jimmy Page. Plant was only beginning to explore how he and his colleagues would define what it meant to be in a rock band by the time The Beatles stopped touring altogether.
In both cases, it’s their fans’ memory of the music that drives the artists and one suspects that Plant, whose solo and collaborative catalogue is now larger than that of Zeppelin, would probably prefer not to perform any of the old songs. But he does give a nod to the old days and to some of his other favourite writers with some fascinating covers.
When I spoke to Robert Plant last week and I expressed admiration at how he handled his back catalogue given the weight of the Led Zeppelin reputation, he admitted that he felt that some of the lyrics now sounded a ‘little trite’ and that he had taken ‘a feather out of Bob Dylan’s cap’ when it comes to performing the old material. It’s a strategy that keeps the performance and the songs fresh.
Plant’s eleventh solo album, Carry Fire, was released late last year and it is the one he is touring behind with his Sensational Spaceshifters, featuring guitarist Justin Adams and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Seth Lakeman (who will also be opening some of Plant’s shows). It’s a heavyweight band that invests the music with a sound that makes you think that this is what Led Zeppelin would actually doing had they stayed together. The opening song ‘The May Queen’ (and it very title) evokes earlier times, maybe even ‘Stairway To Heaven.’ Many of the songs deliver an underlying political message. There is even a weirdly wonderful duet with Chrissie Hynde of ‘Bluebirds Over The Mountain’, a 1958 song from rockabilly artist Ersel Hickey and also covered by Ritchie Valens. Approaching 70 years of age, Plant remains as inventive as ever.
But it is not Plant’s latest music nor his career with Led Zeppelin that I want to use to mention to start our conversation. I have seen him over the years at various festivals, not just performing but also standing side of stage or even out in the audience watching other acts. I have been within touching distance but never had the nerve to interrupt him.
It has always struck me that Plant is first and foremost a music fan. His solo recordings and collaborations attest to that fact, especially albums such as The Honeydrippers Volume One and Waking Into Clarksdale with Jimmy Page or the fantastic Raising Sand with Alison Krauss. Then again you need look no further that his contributions with CC Adcock and Lil’ Band O’ Gold to Going Home: A Tribute To Fats Domino.
I wanted to start by asking you a couple of questions, knowing you’re a big music fan. Late last year we lost Fats Domino. Of course, you’re involved in the tribute to Fats and you met Fats. A huge loss to music and someone I would imagine you listened to from a very young age.
Absolutely yes, and apart from the huge catalogue of great driving music that came thundering out of NOLA, he was also kind of linked with former times: working a lot with Dave Bartholomew’s band as he did and linking across to Professor Longhair and all that great stuff he did with Earl King, and the whole New Orleans musical scene. If you like he was the clarion call that opened the doors for people to explore even more the spectacular music of that kind of black pop from Louisiana.
What was it like for you meeting him and him being one of your idols, I guess?
Tell me somebody who you meet who’s not really a regular guy underneath it all, unless they’re hospitalized. He was a great guy. He was very charming and very self-effacing and I think he was a little bit blitzed by the idea of everybody singing his songs, because the project was to sell as many double CDs of his music – of people like myself and McCartney and whoever else – to contribute to the rebuilding of various parts of the 9th Ward of Louisiana’s New Orleans following the Katrina disaster. So, I think he was blown away because he was a kind of guy that kept himself to himself, and in latter years as the music scene changed he wouldn’t have been hanging out too much with The Meters or somebody like that. So I think he was kind of slightly taken aback by the whole thing.
The other person, who’s not so well known and I know you’ve met him – in fact you’ve been on his radio show – was Sonny Payne, whose King Biscuit Time show ran for more than 50 years. He passed away just a couple of weeks ago. I think you met him in your travels to Arkansas or Mississippi.
Yes, I met him in West Helena. He didn’t know it was me and I didn’t know it was him….well, I knew it was him. I was just musing in the sort of open studio which was on Main Street, West Helena. He was playing stuff and I made some comment by accident. Obviously his ears pricked up and I just became a tourist, and he interviewed me as a tourist, which I thought was cool because what I know about music from Mississippi and the whole Delta is what I know no matter who I am. So, it was a good conversation, and only when I got off the air did people ring him and say, “Oh, that’s that guy, he’s always here, Robert Plant, he’s always in Mississippi somewhere, peeping through an old fence.”
It’s a great story and he told me it once. He was very self-deprecating about it. He said he felt like a bit of an idiot not knowing who you were at the time.
Who cares about all that stuff. So long as we both got stuff that we’re excited by, it doesn’t matter about all the trappings. That’s the stuff I try and get away from myself.
It must have been really important to you to immerse yourself in that culture. You have spent a lot of time there and it obviously comes out in your music.
I think when I was about 14, I was a kid, there were a couple of radio programs on pirate radio, on Radio Luxembourg in the UK, which were basically sponsored by particular labels, Decca, Phillips, Oriole, whatever it was, EMI. The Decca radio show on a Friday night would be playing stuff that came out of a label called London American. Basically it was an outlet for a lot of really small US labels into the UK.
At that time, Chess and Checker from Chicago were coming out through Decca, so I could hear Chuck Berry, I could hear Bo Diddley, I heard Chris Kenner sing ‘I Like It Like That’ from New Orleans. It had nothing at all to do with the kind of staple diet of English pop and the whole kind of soggy reproduction of American Black music that came out from the Pat Boone department, and from the English sort of rip-off cover versions and stuff.
So I just came on board, I just bought it and I worked outside of my school hours and I sent off to King Records in Cincinnati, Ohio from Worcestershire in England to get copies of 12-inch LPs and stuff like that, to play on my record player.
I became the bloke in the class who people thought was a little bit extreme, because I was infatuated by a scale of musical singing and musicality that was black, and it wasn’t just black, it was kind of down in the pocket, down in the Delta. So it’s been with me forever now, and it’s been my companion, that kind of music, forever and ever. It does re-occur and reappear in my music now, but subliminally really, it’s just coming out of my pores, I guess.
The last time I saw you was in one of my favorite places at one of my favourite music festivals, at Trans Pecos at El Cosmico in Marfa, Texas.
Yes. I went there with Patty Griffin. We formed a group called Crown Vic, because I own a Crown Victoria cop car. We got a good band together there, and I think we were doing some pretty far out covers, but it was after the band the Band Of Joy collapsed. I think Patty had got a new record out, American Kid, and I was just starting to write stuff which would end up on Lullaby And The Ceaseless Roar really, tracks like ‘Turn it Up’.
I was driving around the North Mississippi and down into that whole area of Big Bend in South Texas, just realising that when you put the radio on, if you weren’t careful and you were a little bit gullible, you might not like anybody but yourself and your Anglo-Saxon brother. I was horrified by the whole thing. I’m going to go and see Patty I think in June, before I start my next American tour after I’ve been to Australia. So who knows, maybe I can sing with Patty again, and we can just take that road down through Langtry and all those ghost towns off I-10.
I’ve seen you at other festivals, kind of hanging around just looking at the music, so you obviously love being sort of a music fan and seeing all this music, and absorbing all this music.
Like I said, I was 14 when I heard Chris Kenner and The Howlin Wolf. So I’m just looking for clues.
Tell us about The Space Shifters because Seth Lakeman’s with you this time.
Yes, The Sensational Space Shifters are a phenomenon that beyond which the world has never seen. It’s remarkable music and we are pleased to invite Seth along with us right now, and he’s kicking it up into a different place. It’s the most exotic music I’ve ever been attached to, and it’s almost like swimming in a pool of joy, really, being with them. Because it’s like Cocoon 4, because it makes a man of some years at least half the age he ought to be.
It’s a really interesting sound that you get, although I imagine that the sound on the latest album because of the line-up change, there’s not quite as much an African influence. Is it more a kind of a blues influence in there?
No, I don’t see it as being an influence of anything. Truly, Juldeh [Camara] is not with us anymore, he’s gone back to Gambia. Seth played on three tracks, which were already there as tracks, but his addition has been crucial within those songs.
So, I don’t see any of these things, these boundaries that people talk about, acoustic, electric, blues, world, country. It’s all just music, it’s just like when you’ve been around this length of time … I cut my first sides in 1966 so I’ve always been just dancing through the opportunities, really.
I don’t see it as being more this or more that, we’ve all got a contribution in the band, as do many other groups. That’s really important, that everybody in this band is equal. We use my name because I was a big shot from some time back, and that will do, if that’s what it takes.
You’ve been doing some pretty interesting cover versions in the concerts. Richard and Linda Thompson’s song, ‘House of Cards’, which is great. Joan Baez, Bukka White’s ‘Fixin’ to Die’. It’s a really interesting set list mix. [Are we] going to hear the same sort of thing when you get to Australia?
Yes, I think so. We did a tribute to Bert Jansch about a year or so ago, and we were doing ‘Go Your Way My Love’ and ‘Poison’, and stuff from Bert’s catalogue. I’m very much into Sandy Denny’s period of time after Fairport, when she went into Fotheringay and she was doing stuff like ‘John the Gun’, which was remarkable music. But I’m also into Charlie Rich and very heavily into Patty Griffin’s singing and her song structures. So there’s lots of stuff there, really. Patty’s … one of her songs … there’s just loads and loads of different opportunities. So long as we play some stuff that people know and like.
I see you’ve been opening the show with ‘New World’, which could be a kind of an anthem of your time in the US. It must be interesting, having moved back to England, to look at it from afar again.
Yes, you’re right. I moved back but I’ve still got a lot of my heart and spirit in the United States, because my most cerebral relationships on a contemporary social, political, musical level, are in America. The kind of fever for music amongst my contemporaries in the UK has somewhat dulled, I feel.
I always find I’m a bit reluctant when I’m in America to talk about politics, but it’s interesting coming from here looking at it as an outsider, and it must be for you as well.
They rounded up 130 … they arrested 130 people today in this town, going into the back of shops and restaurants and just looking for illegal aliens. And San Francisco, here is … its a sanctuary town, it’s a sanctuary city. So there’s fury on the streets from regular voting ratepayers who want to know what it’s all about when people are welcome here, of all creeds and colours. You know what’s going on, it’s ridiculous. What the hell is going … where’s the other voice, apart from on the street?
Politically, it is a new world again, isn’t it? Everything is being completely overturned, isn’t it?
Yes, and look at the motives behind it all. Anyway, I’m not a politician. I’m not a political figure but I do have … sometimes I can’t get away from it.
Let’s talk about some of the music on the album or at least one of the songs, because you do a terrific version of ‘Bluebirds over the Mountain’, which I thought was an unusual choice, but Chrissie Hynde’s on it. I saw her here a couple of months ago and she’s still fantastic, and still as feisty as ever. It’s a really interesting choice.
You wouldn’t want to sit down by a fire and do a little bit of crocheting with her, would you, really?
You wouldn’t even suggest that!
No, no, no. You just pull your forelock and back out of the room gracefully. She’s a spectacular singer; she’s got a very sensual, evocative style. As I was working the song out, I did all the vocals for the whole thing and I realised that I needed a woman’s counterpoint. I tipped my hat and called her up, and she heard the track and she enjoyed it, and said it was great, and it was very little for her to do that. She did a great job.
Most of the Led Zeppelin catalogue’s been re-released, very nicely repackaged, and How the West Was Won is coming out soon. How do you feel about the re-release? I assume you’ve got control of the whole thing.
Yes, everybody does, of course. Warner is like a sort of … they’re like a little Scottie dog that goes out into the yard and brings back the daily paper, and drops it at people’s feet and says, ‘How would you fancy doing this?’ How the West Was Won, yeah, it’s good. The vinyl will sound better than anything before. It just goes to show what an amazing time it must have been for everybody who was there, and apparently I was there.
Apparently you were, and one of the things I love about your concerts is the way you treat the old material to make it interesting for yourself to perform, obviously. You do some unexpected interpretations, which makes many of the songs come alive again when you choose to do one or two of those songs.
Yes, I took a feather out of Dylan’s cap, because his versions of ‘Masters of War’ and stuff like that, you think that basically it could be a lecture from Nietzsche but it’s not. It’s Bob Dylan messing with his own songs. I wrote the lyrics to all those songs and some of them are a little trite now, but I think ‘Misty Mountain Hop’ and its discussions about police brutality and stuff at the time, I shrouded it all in this kind of nursery rhyme stuff. But really there were tough times, but there was a great community. The subculture, the underground in America then was genuine and it changed an era, really. Evocatively, it changed politics for a while.
The politicians had to be much more aware of the young voter than they do now, and that’s a very important point right now in all of our countries.
ROBERT PLANT AND THE SENSATIONAL SPACE SHIFTERS TOUR DATES
March 23 – Sydney, State Theatre
March 26 & 27: Sydney Opera House, Sydney (presented by Sydney Opera House)
March 30: Byron Bay, Bluesfest
April 1 & 2: Palais Theatre, Melbourne
April 5: Adelaide, Thebarton Theatre
April 8: Riverside Theatre, PCEC, Perth