Last night I had front row seats to see Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters play a sold-out show at Boston’s Orpheum Theatre. A few weeks ago I was ticketless but planned on hopping on a bus to Boston with the hopes of scoring a last-minute ticket on the street but then a friend swooped in and invited me to join her. It wasn’t quite clear to either of us just how good the seats were until the usher escorted us as far down front as one could ever hope to go.
In the weeks leading up to this show I listened to the hell out of Plant’s latest album, the tremendous “Carry Fire,” released last fall and assorted other tracks from the 10 previous albums that he’s released since 1982. Through this process I was able to answer an important question before stepping foot into that theater:
Would I be able to be fully present seeing the 2018 Robert Plant and in a sense, meet him where he was today? Or in my mind would I be the 13-year-old version of myself who stood alone at the end of junior high dances listening to what was always the last song of the night? Of course the song I’m referring to is “Stairway to Heaven.” Would I be able to reconcile in my head that I would be seeing the dude who I still hear ALL THE TIME on two different classic rock stations here in Maine singing songs that still kill me like “All My Love” and “Going to California?” Could I leave 13-year-old me and the Zeppelin version of Plant back in that happy nostalgic rock vault of my mind and be 100% present in the here and now knowing that I would be seeing someone who I’ve never quite considered to be entirely human but rather a musical deity?
The answer was a resounding YES.
It became clear to me within the first few notes of the show’s opening song “New World” from “Carry Fire” that this was going to be an entirely brilliant show by Plant and his spectacular band.
Look, I’ll level with you: Having seats that close and having Robert Plant standing about a dozen feet away from me for sure hit me in the proverbial feels. I’m only human and I had several flashes of “Holy God! That’s Robert Plant!!!” I mean for the love of God, Led Zeppelin is one of the greatest bands that ever was and not unlike when I saw Roger Waters last fall, I almost had to pinch myself a few times. But not often because most of the time I was too busy rocking out and enjoying the show and the damn near overwhelming artistry of the band. In fact, the Sensational Space Shifters are so good l need to take a moment to tell you who they all are:
Justin Adams on electric and acoustic guitar, oud, and percussion, John Baggott on keyboards, moog, loops and percussion, bassist Billy Fuller, drummer Dave Smith, Liam “Skin” Tyson on dobro, electric and acoustic guitar, and opening act and newest Space Shifter Seth Lakeman on fiddle.
Robert Plant and The Sensational Space Shifters played several tunes from “Carry Fire,” a few from previous albums and I’ll end the suspense now by saying, yep, they did indeed play a handful of Led Zeppelin songs. Different arrangements of course but still with the bones of the original takes.
Vocally, Plant’s voice has evolved. At 69, he’s still got those legendary pipes, he just uses them differently. His voice has a texture and depth to it that doesn’t need to howl like he did in the Zeppelin heyday. His is a voice that carries the songs down a bluesy, rootsy, Americana river. He digs deep when he needs to but doesn’t try to burn houses down with it. It’s another finely-tuned instrument amongst the others in his exceptional band.
So let’s get down the nuts and bolts of this show. All told Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters played 15 songs including “New World,” “The May Queen” and “Carry Fire” from the new record. The rest of the set was a melange of tracks from “Lullaby And…The Ceaseless Roar,” “Mighty ReArranger,” “Raising Sand” (the album he made with Alison Krauss,) “Dreamland” and “The Principle of Moments.” I’ll tell you about the Zeppelin tunes in a minute because these aforementioned songs need some serious accolades dropped on them.
2005’s “The Mighty Rearranger” is home to one of my absolute favorite Plant songs. “All The King’s Horses” is a a delicately gorgeous song. Hearing it live was profound.
“Swift and true straight to my heart,
Love has come calling and I’m back here again
I pour myself a brand new start
Glad to be falling for the beauty within”
In 2002, Plant released the “Dreamland” album with a cover of a Bukka White song called “Fixin’ to Die.” This was a song played in Boston with its teeth bared.
“In the Mood” from 1983’s “The Principle of Moments” was the show’s first encore and Plant exuberantly exclaimed “I’m in the mood, Boston!” during it. And so were we.
“Rainbow” from 2014’s “Lullaby And…The Ceaseless Roar” was another standout Boston moment.
“I’m reachin’ for the stars
In the sky above
Oh, I will bring their beauty home
The colors of my love
And I will be a rainbow
Now your storm is gone”
As for the Led Zeppelin songs. I was hoping that Plant and his band would play at least one but I never expected to hear an astounding five.
The first one was “That’s the Way” from Led Zeppelin III, released in 1970. It’s one of the most stirring and lovely songs I’ve ever heard. Sitting here writing this review a little over 12 hours after the show ended I frankly can’t believe I heard him sing it live. With acoustic guitar, standup bass and some kind of tiny mandolin, the song was transcendent.
From that same album comes the traditional tune “Gallows Pole.” The Boston performance of it turned into an all-out hootenanny with foot-stomping and hand clapping.
On Zeppelin’s 1969 debut album they covered a tune penned by Anne Bredon in the 50s and recorded by Joan Baez on her 1962 live album. When Plant and company launched into “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” the crowd went crazy and that certainly includes me. There was a massive acoustic guitar interlude in the middle of it that was jaw-dropping from Liam Tyson and it just about had me on the floor. The entire song clocked in somewhere in the neighborhood of ten minutes and every second was spellbinding. Plant’s vocals were on fire, the band was on fire and the entire room was on fire.
It took a few moments for it to sink in, because it was different from the 1971 original, that “Misty Mountain Hop” was happening. But once Plant sang the lines “Walkin’ in the park just the other day, baby/ What do you what do you think I saw?,” I really don’t know how it could have gotten any better. Mad props to Lakeman’s soaring fiddle on this one.
The evening ended on, upon reflection, the best possible way it could have ended. After a trippy, psychedelic intro far removed from the 1969 original, Liam Tyson played one of the most significant guitar riffs a music fan could ever hope to hear.
I thought I was gonna have a heart attack when his guitar screamed out with “Whole Lotta Love,” soon joined with Plant singing “You need cooling/Baby I’m not fooling.”
I caught myself a few times during it hearing the original version in my head but set those thoughts aside to fully absorb this 2018 interpretation which was interspersed with parts of the traditional sea shanty “Santy Anno.”
This was the moment where two worlds collided; mini-me growing up hearing Led Zeppelin songs on the radio and coming from my brother’s stereo and present day music lover me who walked out of this show with a profound appreciation of present day Robert Plant and his out of this world band.
Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters tour continues and if you have a way of catching one of the shows by all means DO SO. Even if I had absolutely no idea who Plant was and hadn’t known a single song I would have loved this show immensely. True musicianship across a wide range of material led by guy who is indeed mostly human but will always be something of that fabled deity who has meant so much to so many for so long.
Here’s a few glimpses of what I saw last night. Video editing props as always to Shamus Alley.