The last few times he’s played the Triangle, Robert Plant was backed up by Americana-leaning ensembles featuring the likes of T-Bone Burnett and Buddy Miller, with Alison Krauss and Patty Griffin as vocal femme foils. But don’t go see Plant’s show Saturday expecting anything like the ethereal country-blues of recent years.
“I spent quite a bit of time the past few years traveling through Europe with Patty,” Plant says, calling from a tour stop in San Francisco. “And I finally went, ‘Wait a minute. I’ve spent all this time with Alison, T-Bone, Patty and the rest – but where is the beautiful ragged heart of urban Britain?’ It’s around Bristol, where that sort of Portishead and Massive Attack underground of drum-and-bass stuff came out of. It’s particularly beautiful, but a very urban thing.”
Thus we have the Sensational Shape Shifters, Plant’s current ensemble, featuring musicians from Massive Attack, Portishead and Africa. Of particular note is Gambian singer Juldeh Camara, who Plant describes as “nothing short of an absolute revelation.”
“We started playing together, pushed the button and turned everything around on itself to such a degree that it sort of reignited my past career, if you like,” Plant said. “It’s pretty fearsome stuff. There are sparks. But no leather pants.”
Of course, it helps if one’s “past career” involves a band that’s in every musical Hall of Fame there is. As the iconic voice of Led Zeppelin, Plant gave voice to a good chunk of the classic-rock pantheon. Four decades on, Plant still sings “Black Dog” and “Whole Lotta Love” – but in radically altered, almost unrecognizable arrangements.
“This is what I’m doing now and it’s unremittingly powerful,” Plant says. “I’ve spun the dial and it’s a different way of me singing and coming at it. I like it even though I know it’s not always what everyone wants me to do. When I was a kid, I’d sing great ballads and people told me at 17, ‘Your future is in singing beautiful songs.’ So me and (John) Bonham joined the Yardbirds, and look how ‘beautiful’ that was. But it was brilliant.
“I do what I do and there are many elements people recognize, get surprised by,” he continues. “Last night was really crazy, almost like a prayer meeting. I can’t explain it without coming across as a nutcase. But people were really not sure about it. All I’m asking for is an investment of one night. Everybody wants me to be a golden god and you can bet your life that I am. But with tongue firmly in cheek.”
As to what comes next, that is still evolving. Plant is riding the momentum of an unlikely late-career resurgence starting with 2007’s “Raising Sand,” an improbably successful collaboration between Plant and bluegrass queen Krauss that sold millions and swept the Grammy Awards. “Band of Joy” followed in 2010 and was a bit more raucous, and Plant’s current Space Shifters incarnation is more raucous still.
“What it will ultimately be in the future is a combination of all these things,” Plant says. “I’ll be putting all this stuff in a blender, spinning it round and seeing what happens. It’s time for a big-sounding collection of songs that are delicate but not self-conscious, that’s where I’m headed. I may have to go to Morocco first, though.”
That’s all part of the journey. The only downer is those who won’t stop yammering about Led Zeppelin reuniting, or complaining that Zeppelin didn’t used to do “Black Dog” this way. Plant has been here before.
“How awful would it be if you always knew what you were gonna get?” he asks rhetorically. “With Led Zeppelin, the agreement was to keep moving, and people didn’t always like it. We did ‘III’ – oops, they did not like that. But then came ‘IV.’ Then ‘Houses of the Holy,’ they weren’t so sure about, but they were about ‘Physical Graffiti.’ So why would I ever turn my back on a process that I began in 1966? I love it and so do the punters. The crowds go nuts, they were screamin’ last night. I thought I was in a field of coyotes. A show like this is a tough gamble, but only for about a minute. I’m a good singer, you know. If I sing a few songs they recognize, and there are plenty, then I think I’m in.”
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat