by Chris Familton
Everyone heading to the Sydney Entertainment Centre would have been sure of one thing – that they were about to experience arguably the greatest rock vocalist of the last forty years. For many there would have also been doubts about whether they were going to get a trip down Led Zeppelin memory lane or whether Robert Plant would be exploring his fascination with world music and other decidedly non-rock diversions. The good news is that Plant delivered on both fronts with a set that honoured some of his greatest moments yet recast them in a new and fascinating light.
The opener Tin Pan Alley was the perfect way to ease the audience into the sonic world they would inhabit for the next 90 minutes. With its low key beginning the song erupted into a 70s glitter stomp guitar explosion with Plant kicking the mic stand high, signalling that the band were here to both rock and mesmerise. Plant still shows flashes of the Viking rock god persona that defined him in the 70s but now live he balances it with a self-effacing sense of humour and genial personality, all the while wandering the stage like a mystical druid figure channeling and steering the music.
The band contains members of his mid 00’s band The Strange Sensation so it was perhaps no surprise that all of the non Zeppelin songs (aside from Howlin’ Wolf and Bukka White covers) came from that band’s Mighty ReArranger album while many others received the same musical treatment of both acoustic and electric guitars, heavy and complex rhythms and a strong electronic component that at times gave the songs a heady psychedelic sound akin to the work of David Holmes and Death in Vegas.
Of course the biggest cheers were for the songs that defined 70s folk and hard rock for a generation. Plant admitted late in the show that many of the crowd would have been playing ‘spot the tune’ due to the way the band re-configured and re-imagined iconic songs like Black Dog – played in a slow voodoo style, an African-tinged Whole Lotta Love and a stripped back and richly grooved Heartbreaker. Surprisingly the crowd were wholly respectful and joyfully immersed in the alternative versions with little sign of the Dylan-esque dissent or Neil Young fan frustration that often comes from such musical diversions.
Some Zeppelin songs were played close to their original recorded incarnations, particularly a wonderful acoustic take on Going To California and the warm jazz tones of What Is and What Should Never Be. They highlighted how intact Plant’s voice is after four decades of use. He can still get primal and urgent when required but it was his subtle melodic phrasing and that yearning ache that he soaks his words in that conjured the more magical moments.
At two points in the show Plant made reference to seeing us again next year and “soon” with a cheeky grin and gleam in the eye that could only be read as an allusion to a visit down under by the mighty Led Zeppelin themselves. Nothing spoken, nothing confirmed but the embrace of that back catalogue and the warmth and obvious respect that Plant and band showed for the songs suggests that even though he is creating his own absorbing and creatively inventive shows, the time might be just right for a another trip back in time with the old firm.
this review was first published on FasterLouder