Robert Plant’s message to fans several days back gives all the insight we need into the mind of a man whose worshipped back-catalogue of hits could easily become an albatross around his neck: “Man’s real home is not a house, but the road, and that life itself is a journey to be walked on foot.”
A quote from writer and countryman Bruce Chatwin, it sums up the feelings he’s expressed to every interviewer who, for almost four decades, has been compelled to ask the ‘reunion’ question: Plant has no interest in stoking the embers of a lifetime ago, instead carrying his fire as he keeps pressing forward. He hasn’t forgotten the past, he just won’t be chained to it – a sentiment that carries right through his live show.
With a stick of incense burning away in his stage monitor, his promise to Sydney’s State Theatre of a glimpse into the “past and present” is certainly delivered on by a smattering of solo work to open the set, and our first gentle nudge into Led Zeppelin territory comes five songs deep in the form of acoustic number ‘That’s The Way’.
Opening act Seth Lakeman adds another dash of excellence to the Sensational Space Shifters
The ‘past’ is best served, though, by the folk and blues standards that have always been a part of Plant’s catalogue, and which prove a perfect fit for a Sensational Space Shifters lineup driven along by the guitar brilliance of Justin Adams and Liam ‘Skin’ Tyson, and bolstered by the violin skills of well-received opening act Seth Lakeman.
Adams’ sitar-esque guitar soon signals newest title track ‘Carry Fire’, and sees the stage steeped in projections of appropriately mystical imagery, the smoke from the incense rising. Next we’re met with a true Zeppelin mainstay in ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’, and it’s here that Plant puts to rest any concerns that he may have lost a step since he first sent shivers down spines with one of the greatest voices in rock.
The quality of his vocals still shines through, bolstered as it is by a choir of reverb when stretched by the demands of certain higher, longer notes. And, while he may no longer be the banshee he was in his youth, he’s no faded talent. His voice has walked a long road, but continues to find itself right at home there.
Robert Plant gazes on in reverence at Liam ‘Skin’ Tyson’s awe-inspiring guitar-work
It was perhaps most at home, of course, on the version of ‘Please Read The Letter’ that followed – a cut from his Jimmy Page collab album in 1998 reworked a decade later for the Grammy-accumulating collab record with Alison Krauss that would cement Plant as an enduring songwriting force – and it proved a crowd-pleaser for fans who’d followed all the way along on that journey.
The remainder of the set brought with it a perfectly-weighted combination of covers and Zeppelin classics that saw Plant at times watching ‘Skin’ Tyson with quiet reverence as the guitarist put his incredible abilities on display, and at others consoling a platinum blonde fan who’d been rebuffed by security as she attempted to work her way to front of stage: “Sorry, love”. Some things never change, others clearly do.
The countrified version of ‘Misty Mountain Hop’ that closed out the set didn’t thrill the way it could have, but the medley that followed the encore more than made up for it, with the classic pairing of ’69 cover ‘Bring It On Home’ and the still-monstrous ‘Whole Lotta Love’ bringing the crowd to their feet.
Surrounded by a truly excellent live band, Plant still stands alone
“Here’s one of our newer songs, from 1920,” Plant joked, as he transitioned back into another of the traditional folk songs that he’d brought back to life throughout the evening. “Sit down, you won’t like it.” But as the genuinely sensational musicianship of the Space Shifters saw ‘Whole Lotta Love’ return with a fury, those who’d followed his instructions were jolted back out of their seats.
It was a brilliant show, but watching Robert Plant and his expert band can’t help but bring about a sense of pity for singers left adrift from the bands with which they first launched themselves to stardom all those years back, now left belting out those same versions of those same hits, over and over. “Play ‘Stairway’,” as the saying goes.
It’s a fate that Plant never has to fear, though, as each night he picks and chooses his way through a glittering career as he sees fit, just as content to put his fresh stamp an old standard as he is one of his own hits. Rather than resting on his laurels in the house that Zeppelin built, Plant again reminds us that his real home is not a house, but the road.
Robert Plant will continue his Australian tour in Melbourne, Adeliade and Perth next week, following an appearance at Bluesfest 2018 this weekend – limited tickets are still available.