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Review: Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters, Colston Hall

By robin askew, Saturday Nov 18, 2017

Cheery, Dartmoor-based aging rockers’ chum Seth Lakeman ambles on to the Colston’s stage for a short, eclectic, career-spanning solo set showcasing a variety of folk styles and instrumentation, from fiddle to bouzouki.

He’s at his best with songs steeped in dark West Country folklore and concludes with a terrific, drone-driven and suitably ominous Kitty Jay.

Let’s be frank here: at 69, Robert Plant has nothing left to prove and no financial need to continue to tour and record. He could simply live in quiet seclusion in rural Worcestershire counting his misty mountains of loot and popping out occasionally to cheer on his beloved Wolverhampton Wanderers. But the last few years have seen an unexpected late burst of creativity, suggesting there’s still plenty of, ahem, led in his pencil. Whereas his turn-of-the-millennium band Strange Sensation leant heavily on cover versions, the Sensational Space Shifters have produced two albums of mostly original material in reasonably quick succession.

It’s been a little more than four years since they last played the Colston Hall. Percy’s a tad craggier, former Cast guitarist Skin Tyson’s mountain man beard is bushier, and Lakeman takes the guest musician slot previously occupied by Gambian multi-instrumentalist Juldeh Camara, but there’s a sense of continuity here that’s been rare in Plant’s post-Zeppelin career. Not that this implies complacency. New World from well-received current album Carry Fire is a well-chosen opener, wrapping its angry anti-colonialist sentiment in a memorably melodic mid-tempo rocker with a cracking solo by Skin.

The nudge-winky titled The May Queen sees Lakeman return to the stage and marks the first of several sly references to Plant’s illustrious past. Introduced as a song by “younger people in a different time…but the message remains the same” a brilliant reading of That’s the Way is greeted with a huge cheer, as is Gallows Pole – underlining the fact that in the unlikely event of the singer being persuaded to revisit an entire album for a tour, Led Zeppelin III is the one to go for, since this best suits his current musical mindset. Hell, he could even play Immigrant Song and New World back-to-back with a big smirk. Just a thought.

Sandwiched in between this romp down memory lane is the tender All the King’s Horses from Mighty ReArranger, which Plant recalls writing in a Batheaston garage. Indeed, he’s keen to stress that most of his band hail from round these parts, even attempting a reprehensible “Orlright moi babbers” Bristolian accent. Bassist Billy Fuller, guitarist Justin Adams and Massive Attack/Portishead keyboard player John Baggott all live here, while drummer Dave Smith is a recent arrival and is gently teased by the singer for being the toast of the “two or three people” on the local modern jazz scene. Nice touch that Smith has Plant’s feather symbol on the front of his Ludwig bass drum, though.

They work well as a unit, Skin’s playing meshing particularly well with Adams’ very different style, and Plant seems more than happy to cede the spotlight for their solos, as if to underline that this is a real band rather than a Golden God and his sidemen. There are few quibbles here. The Page and Plant composition Please Read the Letter gets the full band treatment, with Lakeman joining in, though its emotional rawness is arguably better served by the intimate approach taken on that Grammy-winning Raising Sand collaboration with Alison Krauss. And wouldn’t it be lovely if he were to just occasionally revisit the dusty corners of his non-Zeppelin back catalogue, such as the maligned Now and Zen?

A trio of covers is bookended by Babe I’m Gonna Leave You and that latterday Plant staple, Bukka White’s Fixin’ To Die, the former being radically reworked, in part, perhaps, to fit his more restricted vocal range. It’s all swings and roundabouts, though; what he may have lost in the higher register he’s gained in a fuller and more resonant style that suits his newer, more reflective songs.

To everyone’s delight, the Space Shifters conclude with Misty Mountain Hop, Plant opining that its still-relevant political message (Newsflash: he’s no fan of Donald Trump) has been overlooked by those eager to embrace its Hobbity hippiness. The encore opens with Bones of Saints from Carry Fire and there’s a bit of instrumental teasing before the inevitable Whole Lotta Love, whose middle section remains a gift for experimentation and improvisation. This time, of course, it becomes a platform for Mr. Lakeman to fiddle up a furious storm. The standing ovation is never in doubt.

All photos by Mike Evans

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