Robert Plant is back from Nashville. Lovely place, he said recently, great musicians, “but if you can find anyone after six o’clock, I’ll give you a tenner. They’ve all gone home for tea and gone to bed.”
So the ex-Led Zeppelin frontman is back with a gang of British musicians, not a tribe noted for early bedtimes. The Sensational Space Shifters are a new version of the band with whom he made The Mighty ReArranger in 2005, after which he headed to Nashville for a pair of records, his Raising Sand collaboration with bluegrass singer Alison Krauss and his love letter to Americana with the Band of Joy.
He and the Shapeshifters were on the late-night shift at the Bluesfest event, a booking that brought old Royal Albert Hall memories back to Plant, of “flowerpots along the front and some very piercing expressions”. Tonight’s show was less intense, but in the same freewheeling, psychedelic spirit.
It opened with a guitarist with long hair, bushy beard and the splendid name of Skin Tyson playing an ornate flurry of acoustic chords. An even more majestic mane of hair came into view as Plant sauntered on and began singing “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”, a folk cover from Led Zeppelin’s 1969 debut. As the drums and electric guitars broke in he booted the microphone stand into the air and caught it. “I can hear it calling me the way it used to do,” he sang. “Oh my God!” a woman behind me gasped.
At 65, Plant still has the moves. But he’s an older, mellower rock god these days, the kind who could jest about his “invigorating” right to free bus travel as a pensioner. His voice has aged magnificently, calmer and richer sounding though still capable of the old hair-raising yowls, as in an electrifying version of Zeppelin’s “What Is and What Should Never Be”. At one point he circled one of his musicians intently as he used to with Jimmy Page, before breaking into a big grin at the sheer wonderful absurdity of it all.
The musicians (Tyson unrecognisable from his former life with Britpop band Cast) were joined sporadically by Juldeh Camara from Gambia, in traditional dress, singing and playing the riti, a one-stringed fiddle-style instrument. He gave the Zeppelin songs and blues covers a strangely familiar depth, the tributaries of blues-rock traced back from the 1960s Midlands to the Mississippi and then on to west Africa.
“Carry me back baby, where I come from,” Plant hollered in the final number, introduced by the singer as an “an old English folk song”, Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll”. Dreams of his old band reuniting continue to tantalise. For now this was a homecoming to savour.