It must be both a blessing and a burden to have the legacy of a band like Led Zeppelin behind you. A blessing in that it enabled you to present your music to a huge audience and a burden in that that audience will often simply demand that you relive past glories. Robert Plant did a superb job of walking that fine line between satisfying his own musical curiosity while keeping the fans happy who wanted to revel in the majesty that was Led Zeppelin.
As Plant stated during his set, “I was infatuated with black culture”. He put his money where his mouth is by presenting The Blind Boys Of Alabama as the opening act on this leg of his tour. The Blind Boys have been a going concern in one form or another since 1939…with vocalist Jimmy Carter the sole member appearing tonight from the original group.
This could have gone horribly wrong…a group of ancient gospel singers singing to 10,000 Led Zeppelin fans. But the audience was extremely receptive and open, clapping and singing along with The Blind Boys as they performed celebratory version of songs like People Get Ready, Spirit In The Sky and Amazing Grace (sung to the tune of House Of The Rising Sun).
By the end of their 45-minute set, Carter was being led down to the floor of the Vector Arena and through the audience as he sang his heart out. The crowd loved it.
Then at approximately 9:20, an off-stage announcer, sounding very much like he was working at a wrestling bout rather than a concert, was heard proclaiming, “Our special guest tonight is one of the most celebrated musicians of all times…”
Robert Plant and his 6-piece band took the stage and got down to business with Friends, a relatively obscure number from Led Zeppelin III. An acoustic guitar led the charge and then that familiar voice rang out through the room.
The assembled band is an eclectic bunch of musicians, most of who played on Plant’s 2005 album, Mighty ReArranger. They are: Justin Adams (guitar & mandolin), John Baggott (keyboards), Liam “Skin” Tyson (guitar), Billy Fuller (bass), Dave Smith (drums) and Juldeh Camara (ritti, koloso & talking drum). Camara is from Gambia, in West Africa and the ritti is a unique single stringed instrument while the koloso is a type of African banjo. It was his presence that really added a “WOMAD” vibe to the show.
Plant and his band then followed with two songs from Mighty ReArranger. Tin Pan Valley was built around Baggott’s tinkling keyboard and Adams’ slide guitar, but then broke in to an explosive roar, with Plant exhorting, “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon”. At the end of the tune the singer was crouched down on the stage fanning smoke out to the audience the came from several incense sticking burning at his feet.
“Time to get moving, time to get started”, Plant declared as they slid into Another Tribe.
Plant then spoke at length for the first time, showing off his bent sense of humour as he apologized for taking so long to return to Auckland, claiming he had been pregnant, claiming to have been listening to the Blind Boys since 1939. He then introduced Howlin’ Wolf’s Spoonful.
But this wasn’t some tired attempt to recreate the blues of the 1950s, but rather a completely new take on the old song which I would describe as “space age blues”. There were bubbling synths, pounding guitar riffs and Plant’s inventive vocals. Eventually the tune took on a Middle Eastern flavour after a dazzling musical freak-out.
One might accuse Plant of being self-indulgent, forcing the audience to bear with him as he went off on his musical tangents, but I don’t think that is the case. Here is an artist who has had the opportunity to travel the world, exploring exotic sounds and rhythms and is excited to share them with (hopefully) like-minded folks. Fortunately the fans at the Vector were very receptive to what Plant and his Sensational Space Shifters were laying down.
Which doesn’t mean they weren’t up for some stomping Led Zeppelin moments.
Planted teased the crowd with semi-acoustic versions of Black Dog, Going To California, Bron-Y-Aur Stomp and Four Sticks before a wickedly-rocking Ramble On. After the song’s initial jazzy intro, Plant and the band really let loose with true rock & roll ferocity and the release of energy between the musicians and the audience was palpable. It was the highlight of the night and the audience got some excited many burst through the barriers in the front, trying to get closer to Plant and dance. It was a rough night for security.
Plant then recounted his love of the blues to the audience, and Bukka White in particular by playing his Fixin’ To Die before closing the set with a very bluesy Whole Lotta Love that also included bits of Willie Dixon’s Seventh Son and Bo Diddley’s Who Do You Love.
When they returned for their encore, Plant commented on the “Draconian security” and joked, “I’m nearly 65 years old, I’m not gonna start a riot”. Perhaps he underestimates the power of his own music.
“But never mind, there’s still time for a bit of jazz and a beer”. And with that we were treated to a slinky version of What Is And What Should Never Be from Led Zeppelin II.
“ It’s so nice to be up so late!” he exclaimed in mock surprise before introducing “a little English folk song”, or a sea shanty which we could “slap a bit of oil on and sing a good song”. And with that we all rocked out to a riotous version of Rock And Roll. It was rock and roll heaven, although there wasn’t a stairway in sight.
Click on any image to view a gallery of concert photos taken by the esteemed Michael Flynn:
Robert Plant set list:
- Tin Pan Valley
- Another Tribe
- Black Dog
- Going To California
- Bron-Y-Aur Stomp
- The Enchanter
- Four Sticks
- Ramble On
- Fixin’ To Die
- Whole Lotta Love
- What Is And What Should Never Be
- Rock And Roll