| | | | | |
Jump to
Music Newsselect
Community > Music News

Concert Review: Robert Plant at the Santa Barbara Bowl

Jul 2, 2013 at 10:38 AM | Music News | By Stephen Humphries

In Santa Barbara on Friday night, Robert Plant introduced his new band as The Sensational “Soft Rock” Space Shifters. He was being facetious. The amplifiers on stage had just finished gusting the gale force 10 guitar riff of “Tin Pan Valley” over the capacity crowd.

Behold the unexpected return of Robert Plant the rocker.

During his career, Plant has pulled off more unpredictable moves than Gary Kasparov. In recent years, Plant has dwelled on pastoral American music, first with Alison Krauss and then his own alt.country group, Band of Joy. (In the middle of all that, he also reunited with Led Zeppelin for a one-off show.) Now, Plant has reunited with the musicians who worked on the 2005 rock album Mighty Rearranger. “I really just missed the wolf in me,” Plant explained in a recent interview with The Sydney Morning Herald. Indeed, Plant did a whole lotta howling at the Santa Barbara Bowl.

The singer was in expansive voice right from the opener, “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You.” This version of the Joan Baez song, popularized by Led Zeppelin, started with guitarist Liam “Skin” Tyson playing semi-Flamenco improvisations before easing into the familiar Jimmy Page guitar figure. The Sensational Space Shifters took the song from simmer to a boil. Plant, dressed in a black button down with rolled-up sleeve cuffs, used his microphone stand as a fulcrum point from which to swivel and pivot, dip and sway. At 64, Plant still has moves that make him a commanding frontman. And when the singer let out a long wail—as he frequently did throughout the show—you could feel it vortex through music like a squalling weather system, upping the intensity.

Plant’s choice of opening number assuaged those in the crowd hoping for a comforting fix of Led Zeppelin. It bought him a bit of capital with which to steer the show in a more adventurous course. The Sensational Space Shifters, essentially the same group of British musicians who constituted Plant’s earlier group The Strange Sensation, sound nothing like a classic rock nostalgia act. That much was immediately apparent on “Tin Pan Valley,” which sounds like collision between Portishead and Queens of the Stone Age. The rock song includes a lyric that, one imagines, is a mission statement for Plant: “My peers may flirt with cabaret/some fake the rebel yell/I’m moving up to higher ground/I must escape this hell.”

A cover version of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” encapsulated the group’s unique hybrid of North African Blues, trip-hop, folk, and West Coast rock. Underpinned by an exquisite burble of keyboards by John Baggott (a regular member of Massive Attack), “Spoonful” rocked out a lot more than the famous version by Cream. Midway through, the song plunged down the rabbit hole. Tyson leaned into his amplifier for a locust swarm solo over Billy Fuller’s fuzz bass and Dave Smith’s muscular drumming. And when the last wisps of feedback faded into the ether, second guitarist Justin Adams stepped to the fore and plucked a repeating riff from a Bendir (an African banjo). Juldeh Camara, a musician from Gambia, played trebly curlicues over the harmonic progression with his ritti (a one-stringed African violin). By the end of its seven minutes, “Spoonful” approximated something that might be dubbed African psychedelia.

“The Enchanter,” another early highlight in the set, showcased why Plant justly regards Mighty Rearranger so highly. The sidewinding middle-eastern guitar figure that snakes through the epic piece was matched by Plant’s serpentine vocal and his emphatic ululations. Following Adams’s grandstanding slide guitar solo, Camara stepped to the microphone to deliver a rapid rap in his native language. The Gambian’s words may not have been decipherable, but his intent was: Frequent mentions of Nelson Mandela made it clear that he was offering a tribute to the ailing South African leader. It was an unexpectedly touching moment.

Since they last shared a stage, these individual musicians have been involved in a number of high-profile projects. Guitarist Skin Tyson reunited with his band Cast. Keyboardist John Baggott toured with Portishead. Bassist Billy Fuller joined Beak>, a side project of Portishead’s Geoff Barrow. And guitarist Justin Adams teamed up with Juldeh Camara to form the band Juju, which also features Fuller on bass and Smith on drums. (Mojo magazine deemed Juju’s most recent album, In Trance, as the best World Music album of 2011.) As yet, The Sensational Space Shifters have yet to release a new album. Simply, Plant lives for being on stage. It’s readily apparent that the only agenda for the tour is for these musicians to have a blast as they touch on various points of the singer’s pleasingly eclectic back catalog.

Early in the set, Fuller laid down a thick tremble of bassline for “In the Mood,” a feel-good minor hit from Plant’s 1983 album, The Principle of Moments. This rendition unfolded at a brisker pace and a slightly country-ish twang to the riff. The rocking blues of “Fixin’ to Die” from Dreamland featured a showstopper solo by Adams that touched on African blues, Mississippi blues, and even rockabilly. Plant’s plangent pleading on “Please Read the Letter” highlighted the strength of his lyric from a song that originally appeared on the 1998 Page & Plant album Walking into Clarksdale. A subsequent remake on the Plant and Krauss album Raising Sand went on to become a hit single. As Plant quipped afterward, “That song has seen a few lifetimes, even with that German girl.”

There were generous helpings of Led Zeppelin throughout the set. The warm, percussively strummed acoustic guitars of “Friends” from Led Zeppelin III crested and dipped on woozy swells of mellotron. A tender reading of “Going to California” was welcomed with a glittery galaxy of upheld iPhones. At the end of “What Is and What should Never Be,” the two electric guitarists emulated the panning stereo effect of the outro riff. But it was Plant’s voice—front and center at all times—that stole the show. The singer may not quite reach the stratospheric notes of yesteryear, but he can still unleash a powerful yowl that sends shivers of excitement through the crowd.

The songs didn’t always remain the same. “Black Dog” was transformed into a sultry pan-global blues in which the only thing resembling the original was Plant’s vocal.  “Whole Lotta Love” started as a traditional blues moan before Tyson introduced that riff. The middle section branched out into a tease of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love” and then hunkered down for an instrumental jam around Camara’s ritti. When both guitarists finally circled back to Jimmy Page’s most famous riff, it carried the impact of a dam burst. The audience won’t need to use Q-Tips for another month.

One wonders what Plant’s next excitingly unpredictable move will be. About the only thing he won’t do is resurrect Led Zeppelin—this, after all, is one of the few artists of his generation who still thrives on exploring unfamiliar territory. It’s more likely that he’ll release a new record next year. In 2012, Plant demoed an album’s worth of raw rock songs with guitarist Buddy Miller and Marco Giovino from Band of Joy.  Then again, perhaps Plant will record with The Sensational Space Shifters. In a recent interview, he mentioned that he’s recently been writing new songs.

No matter which outfit Plant records or tours with, it’s all part and parcel of Plant’s career continuum. As if to underscore that point, The Sensational Space Shifters emerged for a surprising encore: The Band of Joy’s “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down.” Basking in lighting that resembles a stained glass window, Plant wailed in powerful exorcism at the conclusion of the ethereal piece. It was a reminder that Plant is a more fully rounded singer than the young man who fronted Led Zeppelin. His phrasing is more nuanced, his timing is more dynamic, and few singers are as capable of tapping into such genuine emotion.

To close the evening, Plant told the audience that the next song was an ancient English folk song that was “older than ‘Rule Britannia.’” The audience realized it was a joke when the band kicked off a rollicking version of “Rock ’n’ Roll.” Plant, Adams, and Camara danced around each other as the other band members looked on with big grins as they took the Led Zeppelin classic to Africa and back. After a collective bow to the audience, The Sensational Space Shifters headed out for the next leg their extraordinary musical journey.


Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You

In the Mood

Tin Pan Valley


Black Dog

Another Tribe

Going to California

The Enchanter

Please Read the Letter


Fixin’ to Die

What Is and What Should Never Be

Whole Lotta Love

Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down

Rock ’n’ Roll

Robert plant fan? Check out these items in the Marketplace. 

Tell a Friend about Rock Square
Stay Connected