Reunion tour, schme­u­nion tour. Decades af­ter fronting the Great­est Band Ever, Robert Plant’s song re­mains any­thing but the same

Sharp - - ON THE RECORD - By Karen Bliss

IT’S RARE TO BE TOLD BY A LA­BEL REP that cer­tain top­ics are off-lim­its in an in­ter­view, but sec­onds be­fore we’re patched in on a call with Robert Plant to talk about his new al­bum, Carry Fire, we’re nicely in­formed that “he won’t be talk­ing about Led Zep­pelin, Jimmy Page, or re­unions.”

For­tu­nately, there were no ques­tions about that holy trin­ity to cross off, or what-the-hell-i’ve-got-him-on-the­p­hone-now-any­way cu­riosi­ties about mud sharks or play­ing “Stair­way to Heaven” back­wards. Karen, I’ve cho­sen you, a com­plete stranger, a mu­sic jour­nal­ist who has never in­ter­viewed me be­fore, to break the news that Led Zep­pelin is re­form­ing and go­ing on a world tour. Point­less to ask.

In­stead, some pleas­antries kick off the con­ver­sa­tion with the leg­endary front man, who would later just so hap­pen to bring up Zep­pelin of his own ac­cord. Ev­i­dently, he didn’t get the memo.

“I can feel ev­ery­body’s en­er­gies,” he says of the al­bum re­lease. “It’s a funny thing. When you were kids, you just made records and kept tour­ing. The ma­chin­ery is huge now.”

The 69-year-old with the iconic pri­mal howl and curly mane still the envy of many a man — and a mighty gen­tle­manly speak­ing voice, too — has re­leased 11 solo al­bums. Two years af­ter Zep­pelin split in 1980, fol­low­ing the dev­as­tat­ing chok­ing death of drum­mer John Bon­ham, he put out his first, Pic­tures at Eleven. Since then, the sort of ad­ven­ture­some heavy rock mu­sic that Zep birthed hasn’t given rise to many equals (cer­tainly not in the main­stream), but Jimmy Page’s gui­tar work and Plant’s strato­spheric vo­cal range con­tinue to in­spire new gen­er­a­tions.

Not that Plant is par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in chan­nelling his power-bal­lads-and-hob­bits days of yore. While bands left and right have been em­bark­ing on reunion tours (see: Guns N’ Roses, LCD Soundsys­tem, At the Drive-in), the last decade has seen him skirt the rock id­iom, opt­ing in­stead to ex­plore blue­grass and Ap­palachian folk (as on his Grammy-win­ning col­lab­o­ra­tion with Ali­son Krauss, Rais­ing Sand) and con­tin­u­ing his in­ter­est in Celtic, In­dian, and Mid­dle Eastern sounds. His back­ing band on Carry Fire, the Sen­sa­tional Space Shifters, are old mates from 2001’s Strange Sen­sa­tion — John Bag­gott, Justin Adams, Liam “Skin” Tyson — who, along with Dave Smith and Seth Lake­man, col­lec­tively played 30-someodd in­stru­ments on the al­bum, in­clud­ing Moog, t’bal, do­bro, vi­o­lin, fid­dle, bendir, djembe, oud, and, of course, your stan­dard drums-bass-gui­tar keys.

Carry Fire has got so much life to it, so many nu­ances and lay­ers, that — like the more min­strel-y Zep tracks — it’s trans­port­ing.

Self-pro­duced and recorded mainly at Top Cat stu­dio in Box, Wilt­shire, the band just got to work and let the ideas flow. “It’s just got to be the ab­so­lutely cor­rect mood and the trance as­pect of rhythm, a talk­ing through the mu­sic with­out even there be­ing lyrics at all,” says Plant. “It sounds pretty good with­out a singer. It’s got such a great am­bi­ence to it.”

He’s heard the al­bum called “no­mad rock” and “heavy folk,” which he doesn’t seem to mind. “It’s not a world mu­sic ex­trav­a­ganza,” he says. “These in­stru­ments that we use are part of every­day life for us. I’ve got bendirs all over the house at home. I buy them in Mo­rocco, but you can get them in L.A. now.” He thinks it’s “a bit more sexy” than al­ways turn­ing to a con­ven­tional drum kit. “It’s like a mantra, a kind of — what­ever you call it — I guess trance mu­sic.”

Lyri­cally, there ap­pear to be some life lessons and wist­ful­ness about the pas­sage of time on “Sea­son’s Song,” “Dance With You Tonight,” and “Heaven Sent.” As well, some songs about im­mi­gra­tion — “New World,” “Bones of Saints,” and “Carv­ing Up the World Again... a wall and not a fence …” — which Plant in­sists had noth­ing to do with Trump, de­spite one tune seem­ingly quot­ing him di­rectly.

“I’m not in­spired by any­thing at all like that. I just find it ab­hor­rent and un­be­liev­able. There’s a sort of in­tox­i­ca­tion that peo­ple get from power and from be­ing able to ma­nip­u­late the me­dia,” he says. “You can cre­ate an en­tire pic­ture that has noth­ing to do with re­al­ity. One man’s re­al­ity is not an­other man’s, either, so my songs just say what they say.”

He points out that he sang “Your Ma Said You Cried in Your Sleep Last Night,” the Kenny Dino cover, in 1990 — “I just think that aim­less songs about af­fairs of the heart roll off the tongue” — and on Carry Fire, he cov­ers “Blue­birds Over the Moun­tain,” writ­ten in 1958 by Ersel Hickey and pop­u­lar­ized by Ritchie Valens and then the Beach Boys. Plant’s take is a bleed­ing, slow, swampy gui­tar track, fea­tur­ing the Pre­tenders’ Chrissie Hynde.

Plant wouldn’t mind if it prompted lis­ten­ers to check out the other ver­sions, too. Rock ’n’ roll, af­ter all, has long been about seek­ing in­spi­ra­tion in what came be­fore you and mould­ing it into your own. “In Led Zep­pelin, it was the same thing,” he says. “You lean on all sorts of styles, but, of course Ritchie Valens was so amaz­ing, and to think that he was 18 when he got killed with Buddy Holly. His style was amaz­ing, and his voice had this al­most dis­in­ter­ested tone on ‘Blue­birds Over the Moun­tain.’ When we were creat­ing Led Zep­pelin II, we went to the stu­dio where he recorded that in L.A. to try to get some of the sound that Richie Valens had.”

Still, Plant be­lieves there ought to be some lim­i­ta­tions on re­vis­it­ing the past.

“Yeah, mu­sic is every­where; kids have got it down. The only thing that is a lit­tle dull, really, is the num­ber of trib­ute bands we have in Eng­land, where it’s old guys play­ing the Ea­gles un­til the very last breath.”

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