Robert Plant Presents Sensational Space Shifters
Wolverhampton Civic Hall
Tuesday 2nd September 2013
Having been a fan or Mr Plant for many years Martin Copland-Gray finally broke his duck of not seeing the great man live last week – and it turned out to be a breathtaking & quite emotional occasion. Read his review of Robert Plant’s Black Country homecoming gig below.
As the late summer sun sets over the familiar old venue before me, the enticing smell coming from the burger van close by is making me wish I’d eschewed tea before I left the house and gone for something much more calorific and smothered in ketchup.
Standing in the dying rays of the golden sunshine with my ticket nestling comfortably in my pocket I’m relishing the prospect of what’s to come tonight.
Only a few short days before I’d been back in my old holiday stomping ground of Borth for a weeks holiday. Back in a caravan for the first time in many a year the memories had come flooding back. Walks on the beach and in the sand dunes, the sound of the waves lapping at the shore and chips on the seafront. Aside from some new sea defences in the village and a few more grey hairs & a larger waistline on my part nothing much had changed.
As I drove back to the Midlands on the approach to Machynlleth I looked across the valley to where the legendary cottage of Bron Yr Aur nestles at the end of a narrow road. The opening chords of Tangerine kicked in and I promised myself that on my next visit I’d make the pilgrimage as so many Zeppelin fans had done before me.
At the gig I joined the queue of excited punters waiting to go into the hall. Most wore Led Zep T shirts of various styles – Mothership seemed to be one of the favourites. Some of the more die hard fans were camped outside the stage door with armfuls of old vinyl in the hope that Percy Plant would pass by either before or after the gig and sign their treasured artefacts of rock history.
Inside the venue anticipation hung heavy in the air. I’d been to the Civic several times but I’d never seen Robert Plant live before. He had however seen ME live before, in a play at the Rose Theatre in Kidderminster (see A Journey to the Heart of Led Zeppelin). So, I figured I owed him one!
The support band The Wildflowers began their set and immediately struck a rapport with the crowd and began to get us in the mood for the main event in just over an hours time. Described as ‘the bastard children of Fleetwood Mac & The Eagles’ with their beautiful harmonies they certainly gave echoes of 60’s California and girls with love in their eyes and flowers in their hair. Their 45 minute set is well received and I make a mental note to buy their EP Wild Among the Flowers and try to catch them at a smaller venue in the near future.
During the change over I head to the bar, grab a drink and then make my way down the corridor that runs along the right hand side of the hall. At the last door I sneak in, elbowing my way into the crowd and find myself a spot close to the front with an uninterrupted view of the stage. The time seems to drag and the crowd are getting restless too, with shouts of ‘come on’ in a thick Black Country accent from somewhere behind me.
A member of the stage crew lights two joss sticks at the front of the stage and slowly their fragrant smell drifts over the auditorium. Just when it seems that we can’t wait any longer the lights dim and the band walk out onto the stage, minus the man himself.
The roar is loud but soon dispels as the beautiful guitar plucking from guitarist Skin Tyson fills the room. Tonight his transformation from former guitarist in Britpop Scouse outfit Cast to serious and accomplished musician with one of rock music’s legends will be complete. During the course of the evening he will switch effortlessly from Spanish guitar to banjo and from acoustic to electric with consummate ease.
The melody segues into Babe I’m Going to Leave You and the roar returns just in time for the West Bromwich boy to make his entrance, resplendent in black with long flowing locks and obligatory goatee. It’s a beautiful version of the song and is greeted with a huge cheer at its conclusion. The band hit their stride early and launch straight into the fabulous Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down from 2010’s Band of Joy. The set is well thought out and is an exact 50% split between Zeppelin classics and tracks from 2005’s Mighty ReArranger with several Blues covers thrown in for good measure.
Apart from new drummer Dave Smith, the Sensational Space Shifters are the same line up known as the Strange Sensation that produced Mighty ReArranger. It’s a tight unit that comprises livewire guitarist Justin Adams, former Massive Attack & Portishead collaborater John Baggott on keys, samples and loops, Billy Fuller on Musical Director and Bass duties and the aforementioned Skin Tyson on every kind of guitar that you can imagine!
Added to this incredibly strong line up is the traditional Fulani musician from Gambia, Juldeh Camara who plays the Ritti (one-string African Violin) and brings a real presence and ‘world music’ vibe to the evening. His playing brings a very different tone to classics like Black Dog & Whole Lotta Love.
Plant has a real reverence and love for musicianship that shows in the way he steps aside to allow his fellow performers to take the stage and studies their work like an adoring father.
The band tear through Tin Pan Valley & Another Tribe with an energy and gusto that is greeted in raptures by the ecstatic crowd. That long wait seems mighty far away now. The hometown nature of the gig seems to get to the former Zeppelin front man and he regales us with stories of his early days spent in local towns like Stourbridge & Tipton. He jokes “We tried to get Willenhall Baths for this gig but it was fully booked!”.
During Going to California (one of my favourites) I confess to having a moment. When I left the Midlands to move to London, this song and Ramble On were the tunes that set me on my way. The memory of my journey south came flooding back to me as well as one or two tears.
The dark and brooding track The Enchanter casts its spell over the 3000 strong crowd and suddenly we’re into a run of Zeppelin songs – Four Sticks, Friends & What is and what should never be, punctuated by blues classics Hoochie Coochie Man and Fixin’ to Die.
The set ends with a wonderfully reinterpreted version of Whole Lotta Love that’s greeted ecstatically by the crowd. One woman next to me in her mid to late 50’s is jumping up and down excitedly as if she were 18 years old and in the front row at Earls Court in ’75.
The band say their goodbyes but they soon return for the encores. Big Log from Plant’s 1983 solo album The Principle of Moments is greeted warmly but not before Plant laments that it seems to be a staple track on Steve Wright in the Afternoon on Radio 2.
The final encore couldn’t be anything other than the classic Led Zeppelin number Rock ‘n’ Roll. Sure it’s a reworking but it’s played with supreme confidence by all concerned and the love between audience and performers is palpable.
All too soon it’s over. Nigh on two hours have passed by in a heartbeat. It’s taken me nearly 45 years to break my Zeppelin duck but I’ve done it. 1968, the year of my birth, was the year that for many of us music changed forever. In a small basement room on Gerrard Street, Chinatown, London something special happened and it’s echo can still be felt to this day.
On stage tonight back amongst his ‘people’ the self proclaimed Golden God shone just as brightly as he had done over 40 years ago when the journey began.
Do you know what? The local boy done good!
All words by Martin Copland-Gray. You can read more from Martin on LTW in his author’s archive.