cover story: Vik­ings, hob­bits and Robert Plant ..................

Led Zep­pelin front­man Robert Plant heads to Aus­tralia with The Sen­sa­tional Space Shifters, writes Kathy Mc­cabe

The Gold Coast Bulletin - Play Magazine - - CONTENTS -

MORE than 40 years ago, Robert Plant and his Led Zep­pelin band­mate Jimmy Page trekked into the Atlas Moun­tains of Morocco and recorded the Ber­ber women singing in the fields.

A few years later, as Plant was con­fined to a wheel­chair af­ter shat­ter­ing his leg in a car ac­ci­dent in Greece, they wrote the epic Achilles Last Stand, which ref­er­enced that mu­si­cal ex­plo­ration.

The sounds and the sense of place they dis­cov­ered on their ad­ven­ture con­tin­ued to weave their way into the mu­sic they made to­gether and alone.

‘‘And peo­ple think (the songs) are about vik­ings shag­ging hob­bits, but there was quite a lot of eth­nic­ity go­ing on there. And I didn’t see any hob­bits,’’ Plant says, chuck­ling at his home on the Welsh bor­der.

It was Africa and one of its mu­si­cal masters who would in­form Plant’s lat­est mu­si­cal in­car­na­tion four decades later. Af­ter his The Strange Sen­sa­tion out­fit ran its course in 2007 and Plant paired with blue­grass su­per­star Ali­son Krauss for the ac­claimed Rais­ing Sand record, his band­mate Justin Adams teamed with Gam­bian griot Juldeh Ca­mara to form JuJu.

That meld­ing of mu­si­cal minds even­tu­ally led to the for­ma­tion of Plant’s lat­est band, The Sen­sa­tional Space Shifters, who play the By­ron Blues­fest this month.

For Plant, all roads to the heart of the blues lead to Africa and it was the chance to add Ca­mara to his mix of col­lab­o­ra­tors that in­formed his next mu­si­cal move.

‘‘I’d been liv­ing in Texas for about 18 months and came back to Bri­tain full of all of the ex­cite­ment of be­ing able to walk through Austin from one place to the next and hear great mu­si­cians from var­i­ous parts of my mu­si­cal back­ground,’’ he says.

‘‘When I got back to Bri­tain, I wanted to get in there and make some ur­ban Bri­tish mu­sic with a slant and a lean. When I was with Ali­son, Justin teamed up with Juldeh and cre­ated this thing called JuJu which won all th­ese awards and what they were do­ing was tak­ing Howlin Wolf out for a ride but what they didn’t have was a Bri­tish blues voice and when I got back to Eng­land, I missed th­ese guys.

‘‘So Peter Gabriel gave me a room down at Real World Stu­dios and Patti Grif­fin came with us and we sang a load of Lead­belly things and all of that.’’

The band be­came a re­al­ity when Plant was in­vited by harps le­gend Char­lie Mus­sel­white (also on the Blues­fest bill) to head­line the 25th an­niver­sary of the Sun­flower River Blues and Roots fes­ti­val last Au­gust.

The fes­ti­val is held in Clarks­dale, a Delta blues hub he im­mor­talised in song in 1999 and has re­turned to reg­u­larly dur­ing the past 20 years. To the lo­cals, this was big news. To Plant, it was a home­com­ing with a band which be­longed there.

‘‘We did a cou­ple of shows in Bri­tain and then I was asked if I would do the fes­ti­val down in Clarks­dale. I have been trav­el­ling to Clarks­dale for the last 20 years and I have good con­nec­tions – I mean even Zep­pelin recorded down there at one time – and it’s not a fancy part of the United States,’’ he says.

‘‘The cards that were dealt out to Mis­sis­sippi have not been the best cards and I al­ways get this emo­tional thing about the place, that some­how there was a con­nec­tion to it when I was a child.

‘‘When I was 14, I had the choice to be ob­ses­sive or to have a great life. And my great life has turned into an ob­ses­sion of mu­sic that moves me. And this mu­sic just hap­pens to be the root of where the scales are coming from, which is Africa.’’

Plant be­lieves his blues ob­ses­sion has changed his voice and cred­its work­ing with Krauss and Grif­fin as piv­otal in­flu­ences in chal­leng­ing his vo­cal abil­ity.

‘‘I have been chal­lenged; I learned how to sing, how to sing sing, prop­erly, not just as a solo vo­cal­ist but as a con­trib­u­tor along­side two of the most spec­tac­u­lar fe­male singers in Amer­ica to­day, Ali­son Krauss and Patti Grif­fin,’’ he says.

‘‘I’ve al­ways sung the lead vo­cal – I think on Led Zep­pelin tracks there are maybe three or four tracks where there is a bit of har­mony. The whole ’70s at­ti­tude about my vo­cals was that it was quite some­thing you know, but in Amer­ica I learned a lot of stuff that I’d never imag­ined and I rel­ished it and was wel­comed with open arms into a mu­sic scene that kinda needed me as much I needed it.’’

He fits in so ca­su­ally to th­ese iconic blues towns that Grif­fin cheek­ily in­tro­duced him as her chauf­feur at a char­ity gig in Austin and as he took the stage, he tossed a driver’s cap into the au­di­ence. Asked how that ca­reer side­line is work­ing for him, Plant is equally cheeky: ‘‘She’s very happy with the way I change gear.’’

Robert Plant and The Sen­sa­tional Space Shifters play the By­ron Bay Blues­fest on Easter Satur­day (March 30).

Robert Plant (left) and with his lat­est band, The Sen­sa­tional Space Shifters (above).

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