cover story: Vikings, hobbits and Robert Plant ..................
Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant heads to Australia with The Sensational Space Shifters, writes Kathy Mccabe
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).