Review: Robert Plant and the Sensational Shape Shifters
by Thomas Little • August 17, 2012 @ 6:00am
Birmingham’s Alabama Theater was treated to the latest offerings of a rock legend last Sunday night, as Robert Plant performed with his new band, the Sensational Space Shifters.
As lead singer of the monumental group Led Zeppelin, Plant helped to shape rock music for generations through his banshee-pitch vocals and high-energy performance. Now at age 63, he continues to allow his musical tastes to change and evolve, resulting in a unique and unpredictable set list.
The Sensational Space Shifters’ stateside tour was a remarkably limited engagement, with only two performances over one weekend in the Southeast. On Saturday, August 11, Plant and his band performed at the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi. The following night, they played for a sold-out crowd at The Alabama Theater. Plant acknowledged the show as the “second and final gig of the second and final leg” of the new band’s brief U.S. jaunt.
When Plant and company confirmed their presence at the Mississippi festival, Red Mountain Entertainment jumped on a rare opportunity and booked the star for a special gig in Birmingham. The Alabama Theater, a classic movie palace, would prove to be the perfect venue for Plant’s current brand of rock-fused blues and folk.
Texas artist Hayes Carll opened the night, making good use of a quick set to stoke the crowd. He kept the audience engaged with an extended, comedic outro before stepping aside for the headlining act.
While with Led Zeppelin in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Robert Plant performed vocal aerobatics that could earn Olympic gold. While he’s still capable of sustaining some impressive high notes, his musical interests have lately taken him in a different direction.
His latest ensemble includes Grammy winning singer Patty Griffin, who accompanied Plant on his Band of Joy project in 2010. Plant secured some strong instrumentation for this mini-tour, with former Strange Sensation band mates John Baggot (keys), Billy Fuller (bass), and Justin Adams (guitar). Early in the set, the band introduced West African musician Juldeh Camara of the band JuJu. Throughout the night, he played exotic instruments such as a one-fingered violin called the ritti.
Of course, they didn’t organize this eclectic group to simply roll out a few Zeppelin hits and call it a night. Reinvention was the theme of the evening, as Plant and friends took each familiar song and demolished it on stage, rebuilding it from the ground up with new parts and new finish. It wouldn’t be enough to just add an African banjo to “Black Dog.” They rewrote the music in a way that made the most of a new band’s chemistry.
When Camara started playing that famous riff on his kologo, the audience held their breath until they realized that this was a song they’ve heard the same way a thousand times before, now suddenly something new.
Equally surprising was the absence of certain songs from his set. Although Zep III (an album comprised largely of folk-ish acoustic tracks) was well represented, previous concert staples like “Rock And Roll” and “Over the Hills and Far Away” were left on the shelf. Even songs from his more recent projects with Alison Krauss and The Band of Joy were overlooked for the evening. “Please Read the Letter” seemed like an obvious choice while Patty Griffin was on stage, but she did get to play a few songs of her own.
If the band is working on any new material, they’re keeping it under wraps for now, electing to put their own spin on a selection of rock and blues classics. The Bluesbreakers’ “I’m Your Witchdoctor” received the band’s sound-shifting treatment, as did the blues traditional “Spoonful.”
Robert Plant is clearly a fan of ambient soundscapes. In many of his post-Zeppelin endeavors, the guitarists have consistently cranked up the delay effects to create moody, slow-burning trips that allow Plant to explore the lower, smoother nuances of his own voice.
That’s not to say there was too much smoke and too little fire. From the full-electric opening number to the rapid thump of Plant and Adams’ bendir drums, the show never lacked energy. The audience was up and clapping along when Plant and Griffin delivered an upbeat revisit of “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp.” “Whole Lotta Love,” was set to a new rhythm, introduced with “Who Do You Love?”
Plant took a moment during his show to express his endearment to the artists he covered, saying that both the original Southern blues artists and the British blues bands that followed were great inspirations for his own music.
He then closed his set and disappeared offstage, allowing the packed house to cheer for an encore. When the applause reached its peak, Plant returned to the stage, asked the theater to raise the houselights, and had a good look at Birmingham.
He treated the crowd to two more songs, ending with the Led Zeppelin hit “Gallows Pole.” He introduced the song as one that originated in his own corner of the world, then traveled across the sea to germinate in Appalachia and the South. He thought the natural blend of English and American folk to be a fitting end to their tour.
With a bow and a cabaret kick, Plant invited the audience to keep an ear out for The Sensational Shape Shifters in the future.
Cover photo by Butch Oglesby.