Leeds city centre crackles with anticipatory energy. It’s a cold, wet and dark Tuesday (November 17th), but nothing is going to dampen spirits tonight, not for this clash of the titans. Two rock icons are about to perform within spitting distance of each other: young-blood Jack White and the legendary Robert Plant, backed by his Sensational Space Shifters.
Normally this would cause a troubling dilemma, but in the interviews that accompanied the release of new album 'Lullaby And… The Ceaseless Roar' (review), Plant intimated that this could be his last hurrah; that the album was a culmination of his lifelong journey in music and possibly a fitting note to bow out on. So, easy decision.
It’s an older crowd but there are also plenty of people who weren’t born when Led Zeppelin were arguably the biggest band on the planet. And if you weren’t part of the lucky few and rock glitterati that saw the 2007 reunion gig at the O2 Arena in London, this tour represents the best chance to hear that voice sing those songs.
As the opening bars of ‘Black Dog’ blast out and the majestic Aslan of rock lets rip with his incomparable vocals, the venue erupts. A collective sense of privilege and excitement courses through the crowd.
The old classic is immediately followed by material from the new album, the juddering beast ‘Turn It Up’ and the billowing lilt of ‘Rainbow’. This sets the pattern of the night, mixing much-loved Led Zep gems with the hypnotic alchemy of the new album, which blends mammoth rock, West African rhythms and, in Plant’s own words, “big, f*ck off drum loops that fry you”.
Plant’s disparate gang include Liam ‘Skin’ Tyson (formerly of Britpop scousers Cast) on banjo and lead guitar, John Baggott (from Massive Attack and Portishead) on keyboards and techno effects, Billy Fuller on bass,
Dave Smith on drums, Justin Adams – cutting a dash somewhere between Joe Strummer and Johnny Cash – on guitar and an array of foreign stringed instruments, and West African musician Juldeh Camara also on exotic instruments such as the kologo and riti. With Plant as revered ringleader, they seem to effortlessly communicate and thrive on the connection.
It’d be lazy to label this ‘ethnic’ or ‘world’ music, but it’s certainly geographical. These are songs of places and landscapes, continents and journeys. Plant clearly feels comfortable and takes immense pleasure in the music. You could easily imagine him performing in a cosy wee pub as he does floodlit arenas. Despite being a Rock God, Plant exudes an everyday humility, addressing the audience with warm familiarity. “It’s getting very intimate in here,” he says. “We’ll be doing a quiz next. What’s life without a quiz? It is a quiz.”
We are treated to a touching rendition of ‘Going To California’, a haunting ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’ and a volcanic ‘Whole Lotta Love’, before the gig ends with an encore of ‘Poor Howard’ from ‘Lullaby…’ and ‘Rock And Roll’ from ‘Led Zeppelin IV’. The audience is ecstatic by the band’s final bow.
Plant maybe 65 years old but he is undiminished, a glorious national treasure. He can’t retire – there’s no one that could fill such cherished and well-travelled shoes.
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Words: Nick Rice