Robert Plant Presents the Sensational Shape Shifters at Bayou Music Center, 6/21/2013
Photos by Jason Wolter
Robert Plant Presents the Sensational Space Shifters, Lil Band O' Gold Bayou Music Center June 21, 2013
Robert Plant has nothing to prove at this point. So what is he doing starting another band?
As he becomes more of a lion in winter, the onetime golden god of '70s rock (and roll) has been coy about his long-term plans for this alliterative new project of his, if indeed he has any at all. But seeing how "Sensational Space Shifters" conjures up images of Barnumesque hokum and now-you-see-it prestidigitation -- magic, in other words -- and then listening to them perform for two solid hours, it's clear he's up to something.
It seemed like every fourth person in Friday's casually clad Bayou Music Center crowd was sporting some sort of Led Zeppelin attire. But in just their second show on these shores, Plant and his hand-picked crew of six ringers gave their audience enough nuggets from his old band's past to keep them happy, in versions faithful enough to keep them from squirming too much (or leaving).
But even the better-known selections from Plant's catalog, as well as a few precisely chosen covers, were usually altered and turned upside down so much that the evening was over the hills and far away from any greatest-hits revue. That seems to be what he's going for.
And Plant's band is good, in that way that it didn't seem like they'd even necessarily rehearsed all that much; why would they need to? Maybe they had -- there was an awful lot of gear on that stage, starting with ex-Massive Attack member John Baggott's bank of keyboards and laptops -- but Plant's six musicians meshed so seamlessly it seemed an awful lot like they were pulling these thickly textured arrangements from precisely that moment in time and space. (Magic.)
In a sense, they treated each song as a multi-sided room they were free to decorate at their leisure, leading "In the Mood" to become a dubby, jazzy meditation where themes and motifs would appear and recede (not bad for a five-minute pop song), or deconstructing Howlin' Wolf's "Spoonful" into a slowed-down, heavily processed feat of syncopation that could have come from the new Queens of the Stone Age album.
Likewise, both "Black Dog," punctuated by Scouser Liam "Skin" Tyson's dirty slide guitar and Gambian native Juldah Camara's African kologo (African banjo), and "The Enchanter," where Camara switched to a one-string violin called a ritti, were eerie and atmospheric. "Where did that guy come from?" quipped the front man. But others, "Going to California" and "Bron-Yr-Aur" stomp chief among them, were pristinely realized using little more than acoustic guitar.
"Please Read the Letter" and Bob Dylan's "Funny In My Mind (Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die)" were just as simple arrangement-wise, but considerably more electrified, the latter a drone-blues dominated by East London jazz drummer Dave Smith's rockabilly train beat straight out of the Sun Records salad days.
But Plant didn't make the audience wait long to give them what they came for, either. He opened with "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You," seductive from the start, tuning up his vocals until the band kicked in with that earth-shattering riff everyone came to hear. He was wise enough not to go for the really high register he once reached in "Going to California," but made up for it with a playful, teasing sagacity he's surely come by honestly. "Welcome to another evening of soft rock," he greeted the crowd, "all the news from the Celtic homelands and the Mississippi Delta."
Plant mentioned that Friday was the summer solstice more than once. Seems the old enchanter is a long way from done inventing new tricks.
Still, the evening's happiest surprise might have been openers Lil Band O' Gold. The Lafayette-based Louisiana swamp-rockers fronted by guitarist C.C. Adcock and accordionist Steve Riley a nd Plant's hand-picked openers. A potent mix of Cajun music, steamy soul, Chuck Berry-style rock and roll, and what my parents used to call swamp pop, their surefooted bayou boogie used to dominate the nightclubs and airwaves around these parts, and has seeped into enough musicians that it's hardly faded away.
This music may never be popular more than 100 miles west of Houston or east of New Orleans, but it probably doesn't need to be. It's still OK to keep some things to yourself sometimes. Robert Plant knows that.
Personal Bias: Wasn't that big of a Zeppelin fan growing up, but I am growing into fandom nicely. Loved Raising Sand.
The Crowd: Amazingly, did not shout for "Stairway" one single time (that I heard).
Overheard In the Crowd: "That's Awesome!"
Random Notebook Dump: In case you're curious, "Whole Lotta Love" still comes on like a house afire.