To any human being that has had any interest in the genus of popular music over the last half century, the name Robert Anthony Plant will almost certainly conjure up a multitude of visions and opinions, but one thing left in no doubt is that he was the lead vocalist in arguably the most flamboyant and ground breaking band ever, namely Led Zeppelin, who during a brief period spanning a little over three or four years in the late sixties & early seventies created a body of work that is still ground-breaking and genre defining today. Since these halcyon days, the rock and roll firmament has undergone an infinite number of diversifications, but whereas his writing partner and godlike guitarist Jimmy Page has always clung to the past, Plant has continued to peruse a creative and explorative musical path right up to the present day, with the release of his latest solo album Carry Fire, and came to Sheffield City Hall on Wednesday, December 6th.
Plant turns 70 next year, but his enthusiasm and desire show no sign of waning, and he also has little or no interest in taking the mega bucks that are on offer for a Zeppelin reunion. The last time the three remaining members were on stage together was over a decade ago, where they performed at what became known as the Celebration Day concerts, when they played two nights at London’s Earls Court to celebrate the life and the passing of Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records with whom they had a highly successful artistic and financial relationship with. In the DVD release of the concert, Plant appeared to be unusually distant and out of place, whilst Page seized the opportunity to blast his way through the hits and dazzle everyone present with his plectrum and bow, giving the impression that a lucrative world tour with Zeppelin would be his choice if no one else’s.
Lyrically, the new album is a tapestry woven from the fibres of love and desire, with the occasional sideswipe at the ills and problems of the planet, as highlighted on “Carving Up the World Again”, which is the polar opposite of the subject matter of Celtic mysticism that was at the forefront of much of Zeppelin’s later output. The band that Plant has put together, The Sensational Space Shifters, backed the maestro with a plethora of world music influences with Irish, folk and country styles being the most apparent, which when combined give the album a fresh and eclectic ambience.
The current tour in support of the new album stopped off at the 2000 all seated Sheffield City Hall; built in 1932, it is older than the main performer, but only just. Perhaps the phrase “in support of the new album” was a misnomer, as only three out of the 17 tracks performed on the night were from the Carry Fire, with the set leaning heavily on Plant’s back catalogue interspersed with an eclectic range of covers. The set opened with “New World” from the new record, which was more in the style of a chugging stomp than the hammer of the gods, which was embellished with a Roy Orbison-esque vocal. The only other two tracks played from the new album were “The May Queen”, which was as energetic and rambunctious as any Irish jig performed by The Pogues, and also the album’s title track.
The main body of the set, much to the audience’s delight, consisted of “That’s the Way”, “Gallows Pole”, “Baby I’m Going To Leave You” and “Misty Mountain Hop” from his Led Zeppelin period interspersed with a diverse range of cover songs including Richard and Linda Thompson’s “House of Cards” and Ersel Hickey’s “Bluebirds Over the Mountain”. The band’s onstage dynamic certainly wasn’t one of the ageing superstar accompanied by his backing band; it was more a relaxed bonhomie which is generated when a bunch of good friends meet to have a drink and jam out some tunes, using a multitude of modern and traditional instruments ranging from the Turkish bendir to the West African djembe.
The encore consisted of another two Led Zeppelin classics as they opened it with “What Is and What Should Never Be” followed by the aforementioned Ersel Hickey cover, and then they closed with probably the most recognisable riff in the history of rock, namely “Whole Lotta Love”, which finally got the audience off their collective arses to dance in the aisles. After eleven solo albums, Robert Plant seems to have reached an artistic contentment where his desire to create sits comfortably alongside his wild and wonderful past, and to have the opportunity to witness that first hand was an absolute pleasure.