How does one move on from being the lead singer of Led Zeppelin? While not a question that plagues the mind of many, the answer is clear. Form a folk fusion band with some of the finest folk artists of the modern era, and alternate between playing these delicate new tracks and a few faithful renditions of your past material.
The show kicks off with a phenomenal solo set from fiddle player Seth Lakeman, who not accompanies himself with his drone pedal and stomp box, he plays the fiddle while singing. He alternates playing his reflective, story driven tunes on this, his tenor guitar and the Irish bouzouki. The audience come to love his (incredibly clear and well mixed) sound quickly, leading to the singalong that closed the set becoming the perfect prequel to what follows.
As the lights dim and ‘Brother Ray’ begins to roar through the Albert Hall’s wonderful sound system, the audience wait eagerly for signs of movement at the sides of the stage, until Robert Plant emerges. The opening overdriven riff of ‘New World…’ echoes around the auditorium, to the enthusiastic cheers of appreciative fans. Almost everyone around me seemed to be around Plant’s age, meaning quite a few of them would be able to compare this mellow night of folk fusion to the manic days of screeching rock nearly 50 years earlier. ‘Some weird stuff happened there’, Plant says, pointing to his right, ‘and there… and over there…’.
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‘Turn It Up’ follows this, with its psychedelic nature even further showing off the impeccable sound quality. Picking up his tambourine, he begins to wander the stage like an aged Bez, playing ‘The May Queen’, the lead single from October’s new album ‘Carry Fire’ (read my review of that here). The first Zeppelin song heard tonight isn’t one of their biggest numbers, but its slow, folky vibe fits the set list perfectly. ‘House Of Cards’ takes us back to the ‘Band Of Joy’ era, with its catchy chorus evoking a singalong from even those just here for Zeppelin.
After the eastern-influenced title track of the new album, we are finally treated to a total classic. ‘Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You’ is opened (and closed) with an incredibly virtuosic acoustic guitar solo from Skin Tyson, which leads to a standing ovation that even Plant couldn’t quell. While his husky, low voice still matches the song perfectly, it’s sad to see the man once known as one of the best singers of all time unable to even attempt the high pitched squeals that once made him known as one of the best singers of all time. He explains the next traditional tune (‘Little Maggie’) with another one of his folk stories, even leading to him to quip about the Irish musicians playing the same songs over and over again. ‘Does that sound familiar?’ he asks.
After another folk tale, filled, as ever, with the specific dates and locations that inspired the music, the main set is closed with a new arrangement of ‘Misty Mountain Hop’. It shows off the individual talents of everyone in the Sensational Space Shifters, including Seth Lakeman (as if we needed more proof) and Plant’s genuinely still quite phenomenal vocal. The applause continues for minutes, creating a crescendo that triples in volume as the band finally return to the stage.
They kick off the 20 minute encore with another Zeppelin classic. ‘What Is And What Should Never Be’ is poignant and you can tell it’s one of the few Zeppelin songs Plant still loves to sing. Unlike the recently retired Black Sabbath and the recently reformed Guns n Roses, you can tell he doesn’t get quite as much joy singing the older tunes as he does material from his solo albums. Maybe that’s why he so carefully avoids the obvious choices like ‘Black Dog’, ‘Immigrant Song’ and ‘Stairway To Heaven’. In fact, he’s never, even played ‘Stairway’ at a solo show.
His new album contains a beautiful cover of Ersel Hickey’s ‘Bluebirds Over The Mountain’, which is a duet with The Pretender’s Chrissie Hynde. But of course, she couldn’t come out to perform it with him.
Oh, wait, she could.
He casually introduces his friend to appreciative cheers from the still completely engrossed audience. She isn’t on her best form, with some of the higher notes landing slightly flat, but the intertwining of two such well respected voices in history is still something special to see. Unexpectedly, they dive straight in to The Pretenders’ ‘2000 Miles’. It’s a stark reminder that no matter how many times he swings his mic stand around or dances around the stage, Plant isn’t the sharp, shirtless singer he once was as he instructs Hynde to ‘point at me’ when he needs to join in. She takes the spotlight and the light-hearted Christmas spirit is punctuated with their (and the audience’s) laughter at Plant’s attempts to remember the lyrics.
After Plant’s echoing moans fill the Albert Hall, that evergreen riff starts up and ‘Whole Lotta Love’ closes the show. It isn’t the wall of sound we are used to from the Led Zeppelin days, and the slow guitar slide of the chorus doesn’t melt into the texture like we want it to, but to see a rock legend perform one of his greatest legacies is still magnificent. While we still never reach the piercing screams that once were, his low lisping vocal still sounds incredible. As the Sensational Space Shifters take their final bow, Plant smiles. It must be pretty incredible to be able to impress and inspire people over 5 decades, with multiple different catalogues of work.